Can we use plants to generate energy?

Plants use the Sun’s energy through photosynthesis, and humans use the Sun’s energy through solar panels. By hijacking the photosynthesis process, researchers at the University of Georgia have developed a new approach that allows humans to acquire electricity from plants. This research could lead to some extremely literal power plants in the future.

Solar panels appear to be an excellent alternative for generating electricity, but the reality is that they are poor at converting sunlight into electricity. A solar panel’s efficiency ranges from 12 to 17 percent, while certain plants convert photons to electrons with near-perfect efficiency.

During photosynthesis, plants split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, generating electrons in the process. Plants often employ these electrons to synthesize sugar, which they need to grow and reproduce.

There are many parties that have been looking for ways to generate energy from plants.

Giacomo Ciamician, an Italian chemist, identified the unsustainable use of fossil fuels in the early 1900s. And, like many modern environmentalists, he looked to nature for clues on how to build renewable energy solutions, studying plant chemistry and solar energy utilization. He praised their unrivaled knowledge of photochemical synthesis, the way they use light to create energy from the most basic of substances as well as how “they reverse the conventional process of burning.”

Ciamician found that photosynthesis was a fully renewable energy generating technique. When sunlight reaches a green leaf’s surface, it starts a chemical process inside the leaf. When light energizes chloroplasts, they produce chemical products basically sugars that store the energy so that the plant can use it later for its biological needs. It’s a completely regenerative process in which the plant gathers the sun’s endless supply of energy, absorbs carbon dioxide and water, and releases oxygen. There isn’t any other kind of garbage.

His idea, however, attained a huge breakthrough a century later, in the midst of a climate crisis, equipped with increased technology and rising scientific understanding. In April 2015, Peidong Yang, a chemist at UC Berkeley, successfully built the first photosynthetic biohybrid system (PBS) after more than ten years of research and experimentation.

This first-generation PBS works similarly to real leaves in that it absorbs solar energy and converts it to a chemical product using water and carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen, but it produces liquid fuels. Artificial photosynthesis is the name of the process, and it has the potential to be the energy of the future if the technology improves.

A leaf can acquire electrical charges on its surface by contact electrification. Its tissues operate as cables, carrying the electricity created throughout the plant. The electricity generated by the plant can then be harvested by inserting a ‘plug’ into the plant stem.

As a result, the researchers added artificial leaves to a Nerium oleander tree. Those leaves came into contact with the tree’s native leaves. The leaves moved when the wind blew into the plant, and the ‘hybrid tree’ generated electricity as a result. The more the leaves moved and collided, the more electricity was generated. We could create a significant quantity of electricity if we could apply this technology to a whole forest.

So, how may e-plants be put to use? The most interesting potential will be if we can combine electrical storage and circuitry in e-plants with a technique to directly access photosynthetic energy, resulting in a truly green energy source.

However, the technique may also aid in our understanding of common plants. Plants do not have a nervous system like animals, but they do employ electrical signals to control individual cells and to communicate with other sections of the plant. The Venus flytrap, whose snapping mechanism is initiated by an electrical impulse, is perhaps the most spectacular example of this.

Plants with electrical circuits will make it easier for us to listen in on these signals. We may be able to communicate instructions to the plant if we have a better understanding of their “language.” For example, if we know it is at risk of sickness, we can activate its defense systems.

We might be able to construct electrical plants that work like machines. We could allocate resources to where they are most needed if a crop could inform us whether it needs more water or fertilizer, or if it is being attacked by insects, enhancing farming efficiency. Maybe one day you’ll be able to utilize technology to change the aroma of a flower to match your mood.

Check out my related post: How can buildings go zero energy?

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