Don’t Eat Your Spinach: Nature Inspired Biohybrid Solar Cells

EPA Grant Number: SU836022
Title: Don’t Eat Your Spinach: Nature Inspired Biohybrid Solar Cells
Investigators: Jennings, G. Kane , Anilkumar, Amrutur V.
Current Investigators: Jennings, G. Kane , Anilkumar, Amrutur V. , Dilbone, Eric , Ogg, Jason , McDonald, Paul , Ingram, Philip , Locke, Trevan
Institution: Vanderbilt University
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Phase: I
Project Period: August 15, 2011 through August 14, 2012
Project Amount: $14,999
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Air Quality , P3 Challenge Area - Chemical Safety , P3 Awards , Sustainable and Healthy Communities


The development of a secure energy future requires unique approaches to classical problems. Recent work has sparked interest in the development of photovoltaic cells which utilize the largest solar energy conversion process on the planet, photosynthesis, as a means of producing electrical energy. The lab of Dr. Kane Jennings of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Vanderbilt University has developed a method for employing Photosystem I (PSI), a photoactive protein present in plants and some bacteria, in solar cells. We aim to build on these results by adapting existing technology to construct novel, large-scale, biohybrid solar panels for power production. This task presents a number of unique challenges to be addressed:

  1. Optimize the electrolyte solution to increase the individual cell performance.
  2. Investigate alternative packaging options to promote long-term durability.
  3. Overcome issues associated with connecting a large number of cells to form a large panel.


As an end product, our team aims to construct a six foot by six foot solar panel consisting of six inch by six inch modules. Quick disconnects on each module will allow the panel to be easily deployed in an outdoor environment. Unlike traditional solar cells, which require the use of rare metals, the most essential component of our device, Photosystem I, can easily be generated by nature. Overall, the production and use of our nature-inspired cells poses no threat to the environment and further develops a means for reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Expected Results:

Once the panel has been developed, it will be showcased at a facility close to Vanderbilt University’s campus, and demonstrations will be given to both Vanderbilt students and faculty and members of the community. The system will be connected to an ammeter and voltmeter which track performance; these readings will be published to a website dedicated to this project and will be publicized via Vanderbilt’s Alternative Energy Club. A preliminary goal for this year-long project is to achieve sustained power output for a two month deployment. At that time, the individual modules will be tested, and the weaker ones replaced with new modules.

Supplemental Keywords:

Nanotechnology, Nature, Chemistry, Biology

Relevant Websites:

Phase 2 Abstract

Progress and Final Reports:

  • Final Report
  • P3 Phase II:

    Don't Eat Your Spinach: Nature Inspired Biohybrid Solar Cells  | 2013 Progress Report  | 2014 Progress Report  | Final Report