Proposed by Dr Heather Whitney
If you walk through a woodland on a windy day, you can both see and feel the amount of energy that moves through an ecosystem. But what if we could tap some of that energy to power our homes and reduce our carbon footprint? Plants can generate electricity either through the triboelectric effect or by acting as a bio-photo electrochemical cell and estimates suggest that one tree could power seven homes. This could increase power security, reduce the carbon footprint of electricity generation while further increasing the many benefits by having the natural environment integrated into human communities.
However, there are several scientific, technological and social barriers that need to be addressed. We do not know if ‘tapping’ trees for electricity could impact on the trees directly (plants use electrical signals to help them control their growth and development), or impact on the wider ecosystem (for example, plants can communicate with their pollinators using static electric patterns). We also do not know if some species of trees would be better for triboelectric energy generation than others – if so, should we genetically engineer the ideal ‘triboelectric tree’?
There are also social and ethical considerations – so much of the land in the UK is already a private resource that is not available for the majority to access or enjoy, would turning woodlands into an energy producing resource further reduce the green spaces available to the majority of us?
There are several barriers to the technological side – first, how to we effectively tap into the triboelectric power generated by trees? Currently, this involves the addition of individual components to leaves, which would be very time consuming, particularly in temperate environments where the leaves are shed every year.
There are two main ways electricity can be generated from plants, through the triboelectric effect or by the plant acting as a bio-photo electrochemical cell – how do these interact?
How could this be optimised – there are nearly 400,000 species of plants (though we are loosing this biodiversity at an alarming rate) – what should we be looking for in the ideal bioelectric plant generator – evolution might have already produced it for us!
Outputs could include prototype designs or suggestions into what the ideal ‘bioelectric plant’ would look like.
Forbes news article: Plants As Living Systems For Harvesting Electricity
Quartz news article: Researchers are sitting on tech that could transform trees into power generators
Advanced Science News article: Leaf the Lights On