MIT Turning Photosynthesis into Solar Cells

February14, 2012 by Shannalee in Solar Living

MIT grass solar cell

Thanks to Andreas Mershin, a research scientist in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, there’s exciting news on the horizon for the realm of solar energy: building upon the previous research of Shuguang Zhang, a principal research scientist and associate director at MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, Mershin has built solar panels from an unlikely source—agricultural waste, such as cut grass.

“If you remember high school biology classes, you will hopefully remember a process called photosynthesis, whereby plants turn sunlight into energy,” explains Sebastian Anthony in ExtremeTech. “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.”

Solar Power You Can Paint

The process, which Mershin deems as simple as taking chemicals, mixing them “with anything green” and then painting that combination on the roof, has powerful ramifications, especially for developing countries, where power is harder to come by. And because it relies on unwanted materials such as grass clippings or dead leaves, it has potential to be extremely cost-effective.

While the original system required expensive, sophisticated materials and equipment, Mershin’s version is revolutionary in that “virtually any lab could replicate it—including college or even high school science labs,” says an article published by MIT.

What’s more, the new version is more effective—as much as 10,000 times more effective—which is an excellent step in the right direction for solar power. Mershin says, however, that it still has a little ways to go before becoming most useful.

When the technology is fully ready, DIY enthusiasts will be ready, says Green Prophet. “If [they] can get their hands on a few grass clippings or other greenery and the substrate, then MIT only needs to ship out the zinc and titanium oxide and instructions for creating energy from this unlikely mix and a solar panel has been made.”

Can you imagine that? Your own solar panels made from the grass in your front yard?

To learn more about these developments from MIT, see their news release, “Harnessing nature’s solar cells” at

One Response to MIT Turning Photosynthesis into Solar Cells

  1. Kala says:

    First, I am not sure you would be better off being off the grid. If your state has net meiertng, you can bank power when making more than you are using. You can get it back when you use more than you are making. Batteries are an unnecessary, costly accessory. Unless you have critical need for power when the utility has an outage, you can do without them. In any event, buying and maintaining a small generator would be less costly.Using one manufacturer’s panels (they call them modules), you could get a 7.5 Kw system on your 900 sq ft. This means something around 5 kW effective.Look up INSOLATION TABLESon the Internet to find the average annual sun energy where you live.In my area it is 5 hours. 5 x 5 is 25, so you would get an average of 25 killowatt hours per day. Look at your utility bill, and see how much you now use. This will put you in the ballpark. It is likely, though, you won’t get a full 900 sq ft of modules. And, the angle from north-south your latitude and the pitch of the roof will all contribute to the efficiency of the system.My 6 kW system gives me 20kWh per day. Living alone, this is much more than I use for the items you mentioned. I keep track of daily electric meter readings. From a four-year record, I know roughly how much surplus I would have, and use that to augment heat from the gas furnace. Actually I used no gas last winter, except for heating water.Read all you can on the Internet, and in the green search box at the top of the page.Certainly you want to reroof prior to mounting the modules. Solar contractors like to say the modules protect the roof, but really it is only partial protection.Brain

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