New research from MIT may, one day, lead to the replacement of public street lights with luminescent plants.
Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been experimenting with the idea that by making plants and trees glow brightly enough, the need for electricity would be drastically reduced, helping to cut back on power usage, emissions and cost.
If successful, MIT hopes that their glowing flora could be used to provide low-intensity indoor lighting, or to transform trees into self-powered streetlights.
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Researchers recently made headway by embedding specialised nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, which induced their test plants to give off dim light for nearly four hours.
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” MIT professor of chemical engineering Michael Strano said.
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To create their glowing plants, the MIT team turned to “luciferase”, the enzyme that, when acting on a molecule called luciferin, gives fireflies their glow. Another molecule, “co-enzyme A” helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity.
The MIT team then packaged each of these components into a different type of nanoparticle carrier, which were deigned to help each component get to the right part of the plant without killing it.
Plant nanobionics, a new research area pioneered by Strano’s lab, aims to give plants novel features by embedding them with different types of nanoparticles. The group’s goal is to engineer plants to take over many of the functions now performed by electrical devices. The researchers have previously designed plants that can detect explosives and communicate that information to a smartphone, as well as plants that can monitor drought conditions.
Lighting, which accounts for about 20 percent of worldwide energy consumption, seemed like a logical next target.
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“Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment,” Strano said.
“We think this is an idea whose time has come. It’s a perfect problem for plant nanobionics.”
For future versions of this technology, the researchers hope to develop a way to paint or spray the nanoparticles onto plant leaves, which could make it possible to transform trees and other large plants into light sources.
“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant,” Strano said.
“Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”