2012-02-02

Coming Soon: DIY Solar Panels Made Out Of Grass Clippings

What’s the world’s best solar panel? A plant. So making solar panels from plants seems like a no-brainer. Today, scientists think they can achieve just that.

Today’s solar panels are made with relatively expensive materials in factories. The manufacturing process isn’t always clean. Tomorrow’s solar panels, on the other hand, may be manufactured by anyone—from enterprising citygoers to people living in remote, off-grid locations—with access to a high school-level lab, agricultural waste, and a small plastic bag of "stabilizing powder."

After years of tweaking by other scientists, researchers at MIT have figured out how to chemically stabilize plant-derived photosystem-I (PS-I), the structures inside plant cells that perform photosynthesis, on a substrate that creates electric current when exposed to light—all using readily available materials. The newly created solar cell isolates PS-1 molecules, and with the help of zinc oxide nanowires, carries a current. The best part: a low-tech lab could replicate the results and improve on them. The field of biophotovoltaics has traditionally been limited to labs with lots of cash.

The researchers imagine that they could send a plastic bag filled with stabilizing powder (cheap chemicals) along with a set of illustrated instructions to people who want to build their own solar panels. All the DIYers need to provide is some sort of "green" waste—like grass clippings—and a piece of metal or glass to use as a substrate.

Put everything together, connect a few simple wires, and—voila!—there’s a solar panel that can be hooked up to charge a battery or power a lightbulb. Eventually, MIT researcher Andreas Mershin speculates that people will be able to “take that bag [of stabilizing powder], mix it with anything green, and paint it on the roof."

Mershin and team still need to increase the efficiency of their DIY solar panels by tenfold (up to 2% or so) for them to become useful, but this could happen in just a few years with help from other labs. "We wanted to lower the energy barrier for other labs to come enter," explains Mershin.

Even though 2% isn’t particularly efficient for a solar panel, the parts for the DIY panel are so cheap that it’s good enough. And once the efficiency is increased, it will become even easier for residents of the developing world to ditch unhealthy kerosene lanterns for lightbulbs.

There isn’t much incentive for enterprising companies that might want to take on the project, says Mershin: "It’s a self-defeating business model. We’re trying to make it simple enough that anyone can hack it and do it better than us." But it’s the ultimate democratization of clean electricity, with lessons taken from nature’s solar panels.

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5 Comments

  • Some guy

    If cheap enough, this one technology could remove the need to coal and nuclear power plants? 

  • Joe

     With these solar panels, 100 year old battery technology (Ref Thomas Edison) which will outlast any battery currently available (80+ years), A 'Super Joule ringer circuit' to provide awesome cheap lighting 24/7,  Dr Dean's argument for keeping (clean?) nuclear power is removed from the equation.  Obviously he has never had the physical nor financial pleasure of
    re-fitting power stations after the super heated steam has destroyed its
    internal components, nor has he had the pleasure of disposing of the
    toxic radioactive waste, although depleted uranium bullets/shells are big sellers and used daily in the middle east. 

    The problem as always is, energy independence = independence.
    Control and interest charges are obviously at the top of the global banking financial agenda, and they cannot control you if you control the means to produce your own energy and food.   That why it will not happen.

    Joe Sayer

    Director

    Abacus Tubes LTD

    Suppliers of Non ferrous tube to the power industry since 1982

  • DrDean

    No. While MIT's work here is interesting and hopefully will someday become far more efficient and economically viable, solar power in any form will not replace nuclear and/or coal. Those and other traditional generation systems are necessary to provide power when the sun is not shining.

    Even so, there are real problems with a vision of primary solar backed up by nuclear/coal/natural-gas generation. Those systems operate most efficiently and cleanly when they run constantly. Turning them on and off in response to real-time changes in solar generation capacity makes them inefficient, increases their carbon output and renders them non-economically viable. 

  • Arjun Yadav

    This is incredible.. Will surely be a great thing for the future if it works out as planned

  • Guest

    awesome - and very like the type of innovation that was so good for the us post WW2