Biofuels Biophotovoltaics

Published on February 3rd, 2012 | by Charis Michelsen


MIT Developing Paintable Solar Cells Made of Plants

February 3rd, 2012 by  


In a report published by Scientific Reports, researchers say they’re successfully working toward making low-cost solar cells from plants. While, technically, all plants are some sort of solar cell (photosynthesis takes sunlight, water, and CO2 and turns it into sugar, as you may remember from high school chemistry), the key here is the word “low cost.”

Photosynthesis On Your Roof

The project in question is focusing on a way to produce “biophotovoltaics” without all sorts of sophisticated lab equipment. And while esoteric and possibly arcane lab equipment is all sorts of cool, it’s also rather expensive and not always workable for mass-producing items. The new system is incredibly user-friendly and costs a lot less – mix green plants (like grass clippings) with custom-designed chemicals, and out comes a photovoltaic material made with the power of photosynthesis.

MIT researcher Andreas Mershin, one of the paper’s co-authors, explained just how easy the process is:

“Take that bag (of chemicals), mix it with anything green and paint it on the roof.”

That’s it – mix and paint. Mershin wants to see this inexpensive method used in developing countries, for example, where electricity is scarce and the power grids are unreliable.

Practice Makes Progress

The other key phrase in the report is “making progress;” while the solar cells made with Mershin’s chemical bath are 10,000% more efficient than previous plant-based solar cells, they still only convert 0.1% of sunlight to energy. (Just to keep the numbers straight, CleanTechnica readers may recall seeing record-breaking solar cells with upwards of 20% conversion.)

The solar cell in question is made by growing zinc oxide nanowires at room temperature on a variety of surfaces by isolating the photosystem-I molecules (the ones that actually perform photosynthesis in plants). The nanowires provide a large surface area to carry the flow of current.

In a video released by MIT, Mershin spoke about the process:

“After many ears of research, we’ve managed to make the process of extracting this protein and stabilizing it and putting on a surface that is made in a way to allow for the photovoltaic effect to happen to be very easy.”

Still Working

Mershin’s attempt is far from the first to look at plants for inspiration, but previous attempts produced too little current with much too expensive equipment. This new process is a giant leap forward. The team isn’t done yet, though. The solar cells must become more durable and much more efficient before they’re ready to hit the market.

Still, the idea of a mix-and-paint solar cell is pretty awesome. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

Source: Cnet | Image: Scientific Reports 
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About the Author

spent 7 years living in Germany and Japan, studying both languages extensively, doing translation and education with companies like Bosch, Nissan, Fuji Heavy, and others. Charis has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. She also believes that Janeway was the best Star Trek Captain.

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