In a move that goes far beyond the potato battery familiar to many former science fair participants, a Dutch startup called Plant-e has shown that it can harvest electricity from plants.
This month alone, the company has demonstrated that it can power 300 LED streetlights with its technology. Its prototype has also powered up mobile phones and Wi-Fi devices.
The process itself, first unveiled late last year, is based on photosynthesis. Essentially, the company has found a way to harness the byproducts as plants turn solar power into sugars, releasing extra energy into the soil (which breaks it down into protons and electrons). Its system can collect electricity without damaging the plants in question.
Although the company is testing the technology in the Netherlands and is excited about the potential of generating clean energy, it says its ultimate goal is to install systems in wetlands or rice paddies. Not only would this allow for electricity production on a larger scale, but it could provide power to some of the poorest regions on the globe.
The greatest limitation of the technology at this point is that it doesn’t produce very much electricity in its current form. “Do you want to power that 100-watt bulb? You probably need an acre of land and dirt to get the electricity from,” explained Ramaraja Ramasamy, an adjunct professor at the University of Georgia College of Engineering, as quoted by ZME Science Jan. 15.
But researchers say the ultimate goal is generating 28 kilowatt hours per square meter annually. An average American home, for comparison’s sake, consumes about 10,837 kilowatt hours each year.
Plant-e attempted to raise 25,000 euros on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, but the campaign failed, with only 6,923 euros pledged by the Jan. 4 deadline. However, it has said it will nonetheless have a fully functional pilot system in the next five years.
“Any time we can test and develop alternative sources of energy it is a giant win for our planet. The continued promotion of green energy bodes well for sustainable alternative energy options for the future,” says Duane Gereski of Starion Energy.