Glowing Plants Could Reduce Our Need For Electricity

Glowing Plants Could Reduce Our Need For Electricity
Image source: Melanie Gonick/MIT - YouTube Video Screenshot

We have become pretty dependent on computers, and technology in particular, to the point where if the power goes off, we don’t know what to do. Losing power can be extremely unnerving, especially if you are doing something extremely important, something you can’t really do without lights or power. Engineers are working on creating glowing plants which would produce their own light in order to replace the functionality of various electrical devices, and for now, they are doing a really good job.

A group of engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with lead author and scholar Seon-Yeong Kwak, made an important breakthrough while trying to find a way to create light from plants. Their research allowed them to create a watercress plant that produced a dim light for about four hours after they etched specialized nanoparticles into the leaves.

“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,” Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study said in a statement.

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At first the engineers managed to make glowing plants to illuminate for only 45 minutes, but now that time has been improved to 3.5 hours. Researchers said that a 10 cm watercress seedling can get to about one-thousandth of the amount of light needed to read. However, they believe that one day they will be able to boost the light emitted and the duration, if they optimize the concentration.

“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 explained. “Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”

The study reveals that the team of engineers used luciferase, the enzyme which provides fireflies with their glow, in order to make glowing plants.

“Luciferase acts on a molecule called luciferin, causing it to emit light. Another molecule called co-enzyme A helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity,” the study said.

Strano added that it is the right time to discover a source of light through plant nanobionics as lighting accounts for about 20 percent of worldwide energy consumption. He added that these “plants can self-repair, they have their own energy and that they are already adapted to the outdoor environment.”

Researchers believe that they might be able to make trees and other plants into sources of light, by possibly  painting or spraying the nanoparticles onto the leaves one day. The plants that they used their technology on are arugula, kale, spinach, and watercress so far. However, the research should work on all the types of plants that surround us.

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