Imagine taking a bag of grass clippings, adding in some chemicals, mixing it all together and then painting it on your roof so that it could generate your home’s electricity. Sound far fetched? It may not be. MIT researcher Andreas Mershin recently published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports describing his “straightforward and inexpensive” method for creating electricity from sunlight using plant materials.
His research is not the first foray into so-called “biophotovoltaics”, but Mershin claims to have achieved record performace using inexpensive materials. Recall photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy. Biophotovoltaic research seeks to harness this process to generate solar power to replace the traditional solar panels commonly seen on roofs of buildings. Or, as Mershin describes it, “Commandeering this intricately organized photosynthetic nanocircuitry and re-wiring it to produce electricity.” Yes, straightforward is a relative concept, especially when MIT is involved.
Mershin created a workable solar cell in his research, but it had an efficiency of 0.1%, meaning 99.9% of the sunlight hitting the cell did not produce power. (Traditional solar panels have efficiencies in the range of 5% to 15%.) But he is hopeful that this could soon change. “Since we did not perform any optimization,” writes Mershin, “significant efficiency gains can be expected.”
Mershin hopes that the low cost of the materials necessary to produce electricity using his methods would make solar power an option for a much broader swath of customers, including in the developing world.
The price of solar electricity remains a serious barrier to adoption, although it would be remiss to mention the issue without noting that costs have decreased dramatically in recent years. Despite the recent drop in costs (which has been trouble for the solar industry) this research is incredibly exciting. If the efficiency can be improved and the technology can be commercialized this could be very promising technology. Greener, cheaper solar panels could do a world of good.
Watch Mershin describe his research below: