• 02.27.14

Bio-Based Solar Panels That Could Run On Dirt And Plants

An inspiring design aims to get rid of the expensive and toxic materials used to make solar panels today, and replace it with something a lot more natural.

What if solar panels could be dirt, plants, and batteries rather than the expensive and often toxic chemicals and heavy metals used today?


That’s the aim of this ambitious design from architecture students at a Spanish university. It uses bacteria in soil to make mini fuel cells to power devices. Plants growing in the soil keep the bacteria alive as a product of photosynthesis, and water keeps everything running. The whole structure could be simple to build.

“It is easy for anyone to produce with everyday and cheap materials,” says Apostolos Marios Mouzakopoulos, one of the students working on the concept. “The only materials needed are a pot with a plant cables and some small pieces of metal. This makes the bio-photovoltaic technology an advancement in the way we produce energy–especially the application in developing countries where there is no electricity coverage.”

The fact that it also doesn’t directly run on sunlight means this type of panel could potentially be used in places that wouldn’t normally be bright enough for solar power. “By changing the plant we can have the same amount of electricity produced,” Mouzakopoulos says. “For example we used moss, a plant that needs minimal sunlight to live but high humidity levels.” In regions that have less water, plants like cactus could be used instead, and sensors inside the system could automatically adjust the humidity of the panel.

There would be few electronics inside, unlike common solar panels. The solar industry is struggling to deal with the issue of toxic waste; acids used in manufacturing create toxic sludge, and metals inside the electronics–like toxic gallium arsenide in thin-film solar cells–are hazardous waste that the industry doesn’t yet really have a plan to deal with when current generation of solar panels are one day retired.

Of course, these bio solar panels have one big flaw: They can’t yet efficiently produce power. You’d need a whole lot of plants to actually power a home. The students, who attend the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, are all architects–not engineers or biologists.

Still, they’re trying to work on improving the efficiency so this could become commercially viable. Perhaps someone out there can help?

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.