The truth about commitment is that it does pay off. Years upon years in the academic field, lots of books to go with, alongside well-orchestrated inaugural lectures, are no fuss. From the stables of the Department of Pharmaceutical Studies in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the country’s most recognized citadel of learning, came forth an innovator who has beaten the odds and amassed for himself nothing short of a long-lasting panegyric. Professor Justus Nwaoga, a technologist, discovered that the Mimosa plant could harness energy from the sun. He then went on to work on an idea which involved converting Mimosa’s photosensitivity into what has now come to be known as Mimosa Solar Panels.
Nigeria continues to be hamstrung by inadequate power supply and this problem has stimulated searches for alternative sources of power in the country. Needless to say, insufficient power supply poses a huge challenge to many African nations; an albatross to economic growth and social development in those quarters. This has no doubt also raised concerns from Africans pertaining to the best ways to overcome the literal power struggle. Being that the continent cannot continue to rely on the developed world, indigenous people are resorting to utilizing technology and innovation to harness some of the continent’s abundant natural resources with a view to overcoming the electricity problem.
The urgent need for the development of the country’s power mechanisms has been stressed time and again. In Nigeria and Africa at large, more than 85 percent of the population live in the countryside and the bulk of them are reliant on traditional sources of energy – trees are cut down and used as wood for cooking and other domestic activities. The burning of wood, as you may already know, is unhealthy and inefficient, but it often the only unavailable option, and one that is even disappearing gradually thanks to deforestation. One of the most popular alternatives to these ineffective methods is solar energy, which is today a significant contributor to the power portfolios of many countries. So far, the interest in solar energy as a clean and efficient way of generating power has surged to new levels, leading to the development of a number of innovative technologies in that regard – one of which happens to be the use of the Mimosa weed as in the process of generating renewable energy.
Mimosa is a medicinal plant and its origin in the continent can be traced back to a time when it grew and thrived in the tropics. The plant is characterized by its physical ability to close it leaves when touched at night and re-open when it is daylight. These qualities spurred Prof. Justus scientific curiosity and led to the extraction and isolation of the material responsible for phototropic behavior of the plant. Simply put, the Mimosa innovation involved the fabrication of solar cells from the plant weed after the professor discovered that the material responsible for the activity is black silicon.
The plant, commonly known as “Touch Me Not” or “Go To Sleep,” ignited Justus’ fascination and he decided to explore the plant’s leaves’ relationship with sunlight. According to him, he’d always been eager to appreciate the behavior of the plant as he looked forward to providing answers to the question of why the leaves collapse when touched only to open again within minutes in daylight. The professor had a hunch that there was more to the plant as he visualized the plant as a natural solar panel due to its intermittent opening and closing behavior in daylight nighttime respectively.
The quest for knowledge took the pharmacist to locations rich with Mimosa to particularly observe what actually happens with the plant at night. Part of his experiment involved reflecting artificial light of high intensity on the plant and interestingly, the leaves were unresponsive to light of this kind as they remained folded. This proved that the plant was sensitive to only solar energy from natural light. Artificial light, no matter how dazzling and luminous, had no effect on the plants, perhaps reinforcing its popular ‘Touch Me Not’ behavior.
According to the professor’s findings, the movement of the plant’s leaves when touched is associated with some kind of electrical transmission, which is of the same order as what is obtainable in other living creatures – humans for example. When a person is touched unexpectedly, electrical impulses are transferred to the brain and the person jerks. Bearing this in mind and with the intention to explore it, Justus tried to isolate the particular solar substance in the Mimosa plant that responds to sunlight alone. In his words, “nature has shown us something there, which is in fact, more sensitive than the regular solar cell.”
The idea of electrical energy being derived from a solar-sensitive isolate from the Mimosa plant became a reality after a series of painstaking designs to bring the electrical properties of the material to the fore. Getting the mechanics-to-electrics conversion to work from the spontaneity in leaf movement work was anything but a cakewalk, but he did breakthrough.
Today, Professor Justus’ innovation works on the backs of bio-accumulators containing electrolytes derived from the Mimosa plant. When exposed to sunlight, the solar cells put together with extracts from the weed absorb and accumulate solar energy which is then converted to electrical energy. The solar panels are designed to allow for the electrical potential of the cells to be restored on exposure to direct sun rays after undergoing discharge through use.
And it may not be long before the Mimosa solar technology innovation begins to cause disruptions across the Nigerian clean-tech space and even beyond, especially as this renewable energy source provides cleaner energy than most other sources – because water is used in the extraction process. The professor believes that solar electricity will be cheaper when generated from Mimosa, than that from silicon solar panels. According to him, about 0.5ml of one percent concentration of Mimosa extract can generate 0.25 volts of electricity, or even more when optimally set.
Justus Nwaoga is a pharmacist and a science technologist. Presently, he is a consultant at the Mimosa Weed Renewable Energy Endeavor at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Amidst a sea of more than 900 applications received from 45 countries, Professor Justus’ was among the ten nominated African innovators for practical solutions to some of the most pressing and intractable problems bedeviling the continent. The professor came up with a prototype of the innovation which he has presented at a lot of exhibitions, including the 26th European Union Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition in Hamburg, Germany. He also emerged first runner-up at the NUC Research and Development Show which took place in Niger State, North-Central Nigeria, in 2013.