In a recent breakthrough, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made great strides into what could be the future of solar power.

Their methods have replicated a process from the natural world that is so basic and universal as to almost beg the question why someone didn’t come up with it before. That process is photosynthesis. It is how all plants derive energy from sunlight. The scientists captured an essential element of the photosynthesis process, simply called PS-I, and combined it with other “designer” chemicals to construct a solar cell.

However, it was not a “simple” matter of harnessing photosynthesis. The scientists also used sophisticated nanotechnology to improve the performance of their cells. By mounting the cells on an array of nanocrystals and nanowires, they increased the surface area and exposure of their cells to sunlight.

To be fair, this is not the first attempt at so-called biophotovoltaics. However, with their innovative materials, geometry and design, the scientists claim to have solved problems with previous experiments that made them cumbersome and expensive. They assert their methods led to a simple device of “unprecedented performance.” More specifically, they calculate the output of their cells to be more than 10,000 times greater than that of any other plant-based cell previously constructed.

Like most scientific breakthroughs, the promise of its usefulness far exceeds any practical use at this stage. In other words, it will be years before plant-based cells start popping up, or growing for that matter, on rooftops across American suburbia.

But one of the great things about renewable power and science in general is to constantly challenge accepted notions of what and how things can be done. The scientists note that PS-I, which is the “central molecule” in photosynthesis, is an abundant raw material that promises “ultra-low-cost” solar cells. It could be a boon for the solar industry, which has always been challenged by its high upfront costs. The scientists noted that these cells could be constructed from abundant sources, such as discarded clippings from agriculture and timber operations.

The results of this experiment were included in the February 2012 issue of Scientific Reports.