By Justus Nwaoga
The unequal distribution of electric power and unstable power supply have stimulated searches for alternative sources of power in Nigeria. Insufficient energy has posed a big challenge to most nations in Africa—it has dragged developmental activities through the mud. This has raised questions for Africans concerning how to best overcome these challenges. Reliance on the developed world cannot solve African energy problems, but the innovative use of the continent’s own natural resources can.
Scientists and technologists stressed the urgent need to develop our technology. Depending on advanced nations to pass along their technology is an ineffective and impossible solution. In Nigeria and across Africa, over 85 percent of the population lives in the countryside and relies on traditional sources of energy—trees are cut down and wood is used for cooking, heating, and other subsistence activities. The use of firewood, though not healthy, is the only available option—and one that is disappearing due to deforestation.
One of the accepted alternative energy sources is solar energy, which has become a major contributor to many countries’ power portfolios. The increased interest in solar energy has led to the development of innovative technologies such as the use of the plant Mimosa pudica as a renewable source of green energy.
This innovation was conceptualized after observing the energy transformation in the Mimosa pudica weed, a medicinal plant of African origin that grows and thrives in the tropics. Its leaves open at sunrise and close at sunset and are sensitive to touch and light.
To make mimosa solar cells, the parts of the plant containing black silicon, a semiconductor, are isolated. When a concentrate of the cell is exposed to daylight, a commensurate quantity of energy is absorbed. The concentrate will then rapidly split water molecules and produce a current.
Harnessing the active principle using only water as the solvent has made this process a more sustainable practice.
The use of mimosa technology as a solar fuel is a renewable, green-energy alternative. It has also contributed to efforts to check environmental abuse in the manufacturing and utilization of solar products. Though some were skeptical that solar commodities would be produced in Africa, the mimosa solar enterprise has rekindled the idea of Africa as a continent of possibility. Progressive voices have argued that Africans themselves should produce what they consume for economic development. The use of mimosa weed fits this framework perfectly: The plant, which was traditionally thrown away during farmland clearing, is abundant and easily available, and its new role both contributes to the economy and helps African nations reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. The product is replicable and sustainable, and the growth of this industry opens doors for youth seeking employment.
Mimosa solar panel innovation can change the lifestyles of rural dwellers in Nigeria and across Africa. Virtually everyone depends on kerosene lamps and candles for lighting. These are costly and polluting, and they can be damaging to health. New technology without these negative effects can go a long way to meet the electrical power needs of Africans.
However, the rekindled interest of Nigeria’s current government to invest in the mimosa solar project has been endorsed by Nigerians. Power challenges have placed the government in a tight position due to pressure from the Nigerian public. Huge financial investments in hydro and fossil fuel power to drive the country’s manufacturing and domestic sectors have not yielded sufficient energy. Now, the government is focusing on providing a renewable alternative through sustainable solar energy that is viable for both urban and rural settlements.
Before long, the effects of the introduction of mimosa technology may be felt across African markets. Renewable energy from the mimosa weed provides much more clean energy than most renewable energy sources. This is because water is used in the extraction process.
In our developing economy, the mimosa weed renewable energy endeavor could generate new jobs, but support is needed to make this happen. Government and non-governmental organizations should encourage investigation into the prospects, development, and mass production of mimosa solar panels.
Justus Nwaoga, is a pharmacist and a science technologist. He is presently a consultant, at the Mimosa Weed Renewable Energy Endeavour at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. As a result of his project on mimosa power generation, he was selected as one of the top 10 innovators in Africa in 2013.
[Photos courtesy of H. Zell and Justus Nwaoga]