Dr. Mershin from MIT has found a process which extracts photosynthesizing molecules, called photosystem I, from plant matter. Photosystem I contains chlorophyll, the protein that actually converts photons into a flow of electrons. In short, this has made him capable of making solar panel from grass clippings and other agricultural wastes.
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 slurry of photosynthesizing molecules. According to him, it is like a nanoelectric forest.
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.
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 light bulbs.
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 a matter of concern 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.