Printing the Sun

It's no understatement to say that an ability to turn bits into atoms is a civilization-changing skill. This big-picture article from 2006 highlights the work being done at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, which Neil Gershenfeld, its director, believes is pioneering a "third digital revolution."

Following similar revolutions in communications and computing, "fabrication" will turn information into real-world objects. Indeed, affordable personal fabrication machines, or 3-D printers, are available now.

Here's one inspiring example that may one day use fabricated objects to produce energy.

Photosystem-I (PS-I) are the tiny structures within plant cells that carry out photosynthesis, and had, thanks to a prior technology, been successfully used outside the plant structure to produce an electric current when exposed to light. By thinking about how trees absorb light, MIT researcher Andreas Mershin was able to take the earlier breakthrough one step further. PhysOrg:

The key to achieving this huge improvement in efficiency, Mershin explains, was finding a way to expose much more of the PS-I complex per surface area of the device to the sun.... [His] inspiration for the new advance was pine trees in a forest.

Mershin, a research scientist in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, noticed that while most of the pines had bare trunks and a canopy of branches only at the very top, a few had small branches all the way down the length of the trunk, capturing any sunlight that trickled down from above. He decided to create a microscopic forest on a chip, with PS-I coating his “trees” from top to bottom.

Turning that insight into a practical device took years of work, but in the end Mershin was able to create a tiny forest of zinc oxide (ZnO) nanowires as well as a sponge-like titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanostructure coated with the light-collecting material derived from bacteria. The nanowires not only served as a supporting structure for the material, but also as wires to carry the flow of electrons generated by the molecules down to the supporting layer of material, from which it could be connected to a circuit. 'It’s like an electric nanoforest,' he says.

In the video above, Mershin describes his vision for giving people in remote villages in the developing world a way to make their own low cost solar panels using otherwise worthless agricultural waste as their raw material.