60-Second Earth

How to Make Electricity Using Plants and Sunshine

A new system combines the power of plants and photovoltaics to make solar power cheap and durable. David Biello reports

When plants engage in photosynthesis, sunlight breaks apart water and CO2 to release oxygen and build plant—and people—food. It's cheap and ubiquitous but not much use for powering a home.

Photovoltaic devices use semiconducting material like silicon in a related way, with incoming photons knocking loose electrons to generate electricity. Such devices can produce a lot of electricity on a bright sunny day. Unfortunately, they're too expensive for most folks to afford.

But what if you combined the two? That's exactly what an international consortium of scientists have done, creating a truly green solar cell—and one that can be made from something as common as grass clippings. The findings are in the current issue of Nature: Scientific Reports.

This "electric nanoforest" only produces a trickle of electricity at present, but with refinement it could begin to produce useful amounts of current. Plus, the raw materials are durable and cheap: any living green vegetation will do—nature has seen to that. If such devices can be improved substantially enough, plant-based photovoltaics may finally bring affordable solar power to the remote villages where it's needed most.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast,] 

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