Creating Solar Cells from Grass Clippings

6th February 2012


Guest Writer for Wake Up World

A researcher at MIT, Andreas Mershin, has created solar panels from agricultural waste such as cut grass and dead leaves. In a few years, Mershin says it’ll be possible to stir some grass clippings into a bag of cheap chemicals, paint the mixture on your roof, and immediately start producing electricity.

If you remember high school biology classes, you will hopefully remember a process called photosynthesis, whereby plants turn sunlight into energy. Mershin has found a process which extracts the photosynthesizing molecules, called photosystem I, from plant matter. Photosystem I contains chlorophyll, the protein that actually converts photons into a flow of electrons.

These molecules are then stabilized and spread on a glass substrate that’s covered in a forest of zinc oxide nanowires and titanium dioxide “sponges.” When sunlight hits the panels, both the titanium dioxide and the new material absorb light and turn it into electricity, and the nanowires carry the electricity away. In essence, Mershin has replaced the layer of silicon in conventional photovoltaic cells with a slurry of photosynthesizing molecules. “It’s like an electric nanoforest,” he says.

So far so good — now time for the reality check. At the moment, even with the efficiency-boosting nanoforest, Mershin’s solar panel only has an efficiency of 0.1%. To be of any use — to power more than a single LED light from an entire house covered in these cheap solar panels — an efficiency of 1 or 2% is required. With such a low barrier to entry, though, Mershin hopes that scientists the world over can now work on boosting the efficiency.

Ultimately the goal is to create a cheap plastic bag that comes pre-filled with the necessary chemicals, and “one sheet of cartoon instructions, with no words.” The idea is that you’ll add agricultural waste to the bag, stir it around, and then just slosh it onto a sheet of glass. Suffice it to say, such an invention would revolutionize power generation in low-density areas that are off the grid and developing nations.

Video: Watch harnessing nature’s solar cells by MIT News

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  • Altus

    A lot of crazy ideas floating around out there right now but to me stirring a bunch of chemicals together does not sound much like a solution.
    I would like to see a bigger move toward reducing our electricity dependence through products designed to operate completely manually, production on micro scale done mostly by hand and in the local areas where they will be distributed.
    It boggles my mind when I see scientists ranting of on a tangent trying to come up with a miracle solution when the biggest source of energy on the planet right now is trapped in the mussel tissue of around 7 billion people, but we prefer to flick a switch to get a machine to do the work for us. A machine that is starving for more oil, coal and gas to keep it going when the human body simply needs good healthy food and some common sense.

    • Boy, finally someone else who feels this way. I keep going to city planning meetings hearing all the business interests wanting to eat up big chunks of land for a solar farm and waste all kinds of water to keep the computers cool. The whole time I was thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone think about reducing our needs.” It’s all about consumerism and money. The less we need to buy energy the less we have to work at jobs we hate, etc. etc. People keep on saying when I ask them how their day is going, “it’s almost over”. So sad everyone is wishing their lives away for cars, computers and stuff.

  • gaily russell

    love getting grounded info, new,inspiring, and washing my face in water, that is one for me. thank you for this