If you ever watch the television show “Antiques Roadshow,” it’s likely you share in the excitement of other people’s good fortune once they discover that last week’s garage sale find is worth plenty more than they paid for it. In a nod to the proverb “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” a researcher at MIT discovered a way for everyone to produce electricity from grass clippings. You read that right: grass clippings.
According to Andreas Mershin, Research Affiliate at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, agricultural waste such as dead leaves and cut grass hold the capacity to do something you never imagined they would: produce electricity. Similar to the way that Ramen noodles take on life in boiling water, Mershin imagines that in the next several years, you’ll be able to toss your grass clippings in a bag with some chemicals and create an energy-producing mixture. Then, as soon as you paint that mixture on your roof, you’ll begin producing electricity.
His discovery is actually based on the first energy concept you probably learned about in junior high school science class: photosynthesis. To refresh your memory, photosynthesis is when plants make it their business to create energy from sunlight. During this process, they convert light energy into chemical energy.
Mershin began by targeting chlorophyll. Cognizant that chlorophyll is the protein responsible for converting photons into a current of electrons, he then uncovered a process that pulls the photosynthesizing molecules out of plant matter.
Next, he gathered these newly-stabilized, chlorophyll-filled molecules and coated glass-based panels with them. Mind you, not your everyday ordinary glass panels. These particular ones are blanketed by titanium dioxide (with sponge-like characteristics) and nanowires composed of zinc oxide. Like two people dancing the tango in perfect step, once sunlight embraces these specialized solar panels, it is absorbed and converted into electricity. Finally, the newly born electricity is transported by the nanowires.
Mershin’s exciting discovery, his self-described “electric nanoforest,” is not without its challenges. Registering a 0.1 percent on the efficiency scale, it falls far short of the minimum requirement of 1.0 to 2.0 percent to be practical. Despite this, Mershin is optimistic that his fellow scientists — especially those in developing nations — will find ways to increase the efficiency of his discovery.
There are roughly 1.3 billion people worldwide without access to grid electricity. For them, and surely for the rest of us, this eco-friendly, low-cost technological advance in the creation of solar energy is very welcome news. Sometimes, the answers to complex problems are (quite literally) right in our own backyard! Congratulations to Andreas Mershin and his research team at MIT for helping to light the way to a brighter future for all of us.
Photo Credit: wallyir