Now, electricity from plants will light up the streets

By Devanshi Saxena

Imagine a day when you do not have to depend on your power bank for charging your phone. Instead, the potted plants at your window sill generate the required electric power. How about managing your ceiling lights by harnessing the energy generated by your rooftop garden or glowing trees lighting your path in the place of halogen lamps as street lights? It seems that generating electricity from living plants may soon become a reality. Apart from the conventional resources that are extracted from plants, the ingenious technique of tapping plant resources for lighting purpose will initiate a radical trend in commercial and research industry. Plant-e technology patented by the Wageningen University in the Netherlands in 2007 focuses on natural mechanisms while ensuring that plant and environment safety is maintained.

Exploring the realm of replacing street lights with growing trees

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are intently working on the idea of replacing public street lights with luminescent plants. The glowing flora could be used to provide low-intensity indoor lighting while helping to cut back on power usage, emissions and cost. According to Michael Strano, professor of chemical engineering at MIT, “The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself.” The researchers at Strano’s lab have pioneered the novel innovative field of plant nanobionics wherein different types of nanoparticles are embedded on to the plants to impart certain distinct features in them. For the creation of ‘glowing plants’, the MIT team used the ‘luciferase’ enzyme which acts on luciferin molecule and is responsible for the luminescence of the fireflies. Another molecule, ‘coenzyme A’ is also used in the process to eliminate those reaction by-products which inhibit the activity of luciferase. Each of these components is then packaged into a different type of nanoparticle carrier which is designed to guide each component to the target organ without causing its disintegration.

The mechanism of electricity generation from plants

During photosynthesis, light energy is converted into chemical energy and organic matter is produced by the plants. This organic matter is used for plant growth but a large part of it cannot be directly used by the plants and this is excreted into the soil via the roots. The naturally occurring micro-organisms in the soil break down the organic compounds to release electrons. By setting an anode for deposition of these electrons, electricity can be generated. As per the research data, harnessing electricity does not affect plant growth and thus plant growth is not compromised for electricity production.

Plant-e as a technology pioneer

The company founded in 2009 is based out of the Netherlands. Developing as a spin-off from the Department of Environmental Technology of Wageningen University, Plant-e has been working extensively in the large-scale production of electricity generation from living plants. The electricity generated can be then utilized to power Wi-Fi hotspots, cell phone chargers, and even streetlights. An ambitious project called the ‘Starry Sky’ was launched by the company in November 2014 near Amsterdam. More than 300 LED streetlights at two different places were lit up by electricity harnessed from living plants. Even the power supply at the company’s headquarters in Wageningen is managed through this technology.

Though Plant-e has set a benchmark in the field of electricity generation, it is important to address the issue of quantity of energy that is generated. Despite the major breakthroughs, a great deal of work needs to be done to package a reliable commercial product that is cost-effective.

Commercial venture in Andhra Pradesh

Dr Marjolein Helder, a doctorate degree holder from Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, has now planned to invest in Andhra Pradesh for electricity generation from living plants. In an interactive session on future technologies at the CII Partnership Summit, Dr Helder discussed the potential outcome and utilization of their commercial venture in Andhra Pradesh. The company will extensively work for generating power from plants on a low scale with the aim of providing decorative illumination in hotels, commercial, residential and R&D buildings. India is a profitable market for such an innovative enterprise, the company has organized meetings with the Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu to develop their first venture in Andhra Pradesh with utmost precision as per the demands of the industry.

The challenges facing the relatively fledgeling technology

The system is not cost-effective when compared to the likes of energy harnessed from wind, water and solar power. Extensive research is being done to improve the efficiency of the system and to counter the installation cost. A cost-effective system will further widen the scope for savings providing an apt scale to achieve the desired range of technology advancement.

Currently, the power generation in the lab is about one watt per square metre, and the goal is to attain the target of three watts. As per the calculations, approximately 125 square metres of suitable land is required for the targeted power generation. Land availability is, therefore, a major obstruction that needs to be tackled for efficient energy production. In such a case, developing the equipment to install tubes under the ground is the solution to resolve the issue of land availability. Once the tubes are installed under the ground, it will be possible to generate more wattage of electricity for a longer span of time.

Fund allocation is another major issue. Subsidies and awards have been beneficial during the incipient stages of the technology but as more arenas for innovation are explored, it is important to decide on the right avenue for financing a project.

A future of possibilities

It is the era of change and with the recent developments and energy innovations; the time is apt for the world to join the movement for clean and renewable energy. The world’s largest private bank, UBS, released a statement detailing how the power plants in Europe might be completely extinct within the next ten to twenty years and exhorted the investors to join the clean energy movement. Owing to the growth of these radical technologies, it is now evident that there are a plethora of alternatives for generating energy without harming our planet Earth. After knowing the solutions, it is imperative for us to do our bid in implementing them. The dream is to generate clean electricity around the world in any suitable wetland or wet area including rice paddy fields, mangroves and salt marshes. This gives us a glimpse into some of the most remote and impoverished parts of the world. The basic appeal of the technology lies in reaching out to these off-grid communities and that is where rests the strength of technology. It has the potential to influence people’s lives in the most distinct ways.