MIT research scientist Andreas Mershin is on a mission to make solar power inexpensive and accessible to the masses, especially developing countries.
After years of research, Mershin and his team at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, along with University of Tennessee biochemist Barry Bruce, have worked out a process that extracts photosynthetic molecules from common agricultural waste.
How would this DIY solar kit work? Ideally, Mershin wants people to be able to gather up a pile of grass clippings, mix it with a blend of inexpensive chemicals, and paint it on your roof to begin harvesting electricity.
Mershin explains, "Leaves and plants are nature's solar panels… if we manage to somehow hijack the molecules that are responsible for photosynthesis in plants and other photosynthetic organisms, and use them to generate electricity for our own needs, this would represent a fantastic and disruptive new step in the way that we generate solar power or electricity in general."
Check out the video below to learn more:
One of the team's biggest challenges was figuring out how to preserve the light-gathering molecules they extracted from plants so that they still functioned outside of a cellular environment. Eventually, they were able to stabilize the chlorophyll-rich extract, also known as Photosystem I.
Here’s a breakdown of how the technology works: Mershin and his team have fabricated teeny tiny forest-like structures made of zinc oxide nanowires scattered with titanium dioxide "sponge” components. Then, the structures are coated with the plant extract, Photosystem I. When the coated structure is placed in direct sunlight, the harvested electricity can be stored and put to work.
Currently, the efficiency of these experimental cells is very low at 0.1%. With research groups like Mershin’s, the efficiency of biophotovoltaics is expected to rise to commercially viable levels (at least 1-2%) soon.
For more details, the team's findings are detailed in the paper Self-assembled Photosystem-I Biophotovoltaics on Nanostructured TiO2 and ZnO which is available at Nature.com.
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