How would Nature Make a Solar Panel?




Unlike a lot of conferences, the Biomimicry Education Summit in Portland this week really did not feature much in the way of products. However, Sam Cochran, the CEO of SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology) was invited to speak about his solar ivy. I found him and his technology to be pretty inspiring, so I thought I'd tell you about it here.

Sam is a young guy, recently graduated from Pratt Institute's Industrial Design program. Which makes his story all the more compelling. He saw a problem, saw a solution in nature, made a prototype, and found financial support to bring his product to market. Maybe any kid with a bright idea, a little tinkering, and a lot of energy can make it happen.

Sam saw ugly solar panels on various buildings, and thought, "why not make them more like leaves?" Now, if you've given it much thought, and I have, you know that photovoltaics don't hold a candle to the elegance and efficiency of the real deal. Photosynthesis is nothing short of serious design genius. But still, we grasshoppers must study the master.

Leaves are modular, replaceable, orient themselves to the light, take a diversity of forms depending on local conditions, are aesthetically pleasing, vertically positioned, and have dual functions for water management and root shading. Sam mimicked these features with GROW, customizable, flexible, leaf-shaped thin-film organic photovoltaics. They are 100% recyclable, with the lowest carbon footprint available. Each leaf can be tuned for maximum exposure and output, mimic desired canopy shading conditions, and even illuminate in different colors for signage. How much would you pay? WAIT, don't answer! Because you also get this: They can capture wind energy using a piezoelectric generator!

Accompanying software evaluates buildings for optimal GROWing conditions, and SMIT also offers photovoltaic tensile solar fabric that can be used for tents, canopies, umbrellas, carports, boat sails, clothing...how about a wetsuit? Now you won't have to pee in it to stay warm. This fabric can also be used to collect water while it generates electricity.

Breaking news is that SMIT will be installing Solar Ivy at the University of Utah in the very near future. Thanks for sharing your fantastic journey with us, Sam. Keep making the world a better place and showing other young folks how to do it too! Good luck!