New Solar Cell Pulls Electricity Out of Chopped-up Plants

By Sarah Zhang | February 6, 2012 10:08 am

spacing is important

For years, solar energy researchers have tried to imitate the success of photosynthesis by building devices like an artificial leaf and a solar cell that hijacks chemistry of photosynthetic bacteria. Now researchers at MIT have come up with an innovative technique that also happens to be very cheap: all you need is some “stabilizing powder” and plant waste. Mowed your lawn lately?

The stabilizing powder is a mix of safe, easily attainable chemicals that preserves photosystem I, a protein complex that captures light energy in plant cells. (In contrast, the newest photovoltaic cells in solar panels require metals that are rare or toxic.) The powder is mixed with plant matter such as grass clippings and crushed, and the resulting green goo is spread onto glass or metal substrate. Hook up wires to capture the electric current and that’s your solar panel.

The efficiency of these solar panels is only 0.1%, compared to the 15 to 18% efficiency of solar panels out in the market right now. Lead researcher Andrew Mershin says the technology still needs to improve 10-fold to become practical. After all, being able to power only one lightbulb with a whole house covered in solar panels isn’t much help. But the great advantage of all this is that it’s easy and dirt grass cheap. Because the barrier to entry is so low, anyone would be able to order a bag of chemicals and make their own solar panel. Mershin hopes home tinkerers experiment with the cells and find new ways to make improvements.

Correction, February 6: We eliminated a reference to mulch in the headline: mulch is low in chlorophyll, so it wouldn’t actually work for these plant-powered solar cells.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Bobby LaVesh

    It is a great first step- and obviously grass clippings are readily available. I wonder if higher efficiency might be achieved from other organisms- perhaps more simple orgnisms such as some algaes. (also cheap and easy to get).

    Could efficiency be improved by extracting a more pure- chlorophyll?

  • CJSF

    When the plant material dies, will the chlorophyll still “work”? I somehow was under the impression that once dead, there goes your photosynthesis?


  • torres

    “stabilizing powder” eh? haha. sounds like magic dust. Give us tinkerers a hint on how to make the magic dust and you will really help the world….. Pretty please. : )

  • Sarah Zhang

    @CJSF That’s usually true, so what’s interesting about this paper is that they’ve found way to keep the proteins involved in photosynthesis still functional even *after* the plant is dead.

  • Mark Perry

    This is exciting. Maybe one day we will be able to plug into our fount yard and create power for our home without chopping up the clipping.


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