Will plants become tomorrow’s solar panels?

2020.11.08

You likely don’t know it, but each and every one of your household plant pots produce an electric current. While the concept of plants producing energy is nothing new, up until now, these capabilities have been extremely limited. The electrifying news is that a recent study from Tel Aviv University has discovered a way to use plants as an electrical source for producing materials. From turning hydrogen into clean fuel to replacing agriculture pollutants with ammonia, plants might actually have the power to transform our global economy.

When it comes to generating electricity, plants are nature’s superheroes at efficiency. They contain their own organic solar panels, so to speak. In fact, the essential process of photosynthesis is the same as silicon rooftop panels —absorbing sunlight to generate electric current.

Iftach Yacoby, Head of The Laboratory of Renewable Energy Studies at Tel Aviv University, explains:

“Plants know how to take in solar radiation and make electrons flow out of it.”

Yacoby led the study with Kevin Redding, molecular sciences professor at the University of Arizona. According to them, the biggest challenge in using plant energy for commercial purposes is: identifying plant electrical currents to channel them for other purposes. Unlike plugging a home device into a power outlet, scientists haven’t had a clue where to “plug-in” for plants.

Plants as a source of energy. Image courtesy of Iftach Yacoby, C-Tech.


 

The groundbreaking discovery for Yacoby’s team was uncovering a kind of socket for any plant cell. They found a nanometer-sized enzyme to trigger a plant’s functionality like a biological machine. The breakthrough was when they attached the enzyme that produces hydrogen to a plant cell.

The team incubated a chlorophyll cell, the biological basis for every green colored plant. And then they cross-planted it with an enzyme that produces hydrogen. They hit a strategic point that would allow for almost 100% electron supply. And that’s how they were able to produce on-demand hydrogen, one of nature’s cleanest fuels. According to Yacoby:

“If you attach an enzyme that produces hydrogen you get hydrogen, it’s the cleanest fuel that can be.”

The game changing insight was that if you stick to a specific enzyme, you get exclusivity on the electric current. This method proved that they could engineer any plant to become an electrical outlet for production:

“We can provide a plant-based alternative for the production of materials that are made in chemical manufacturing facilities. It’s an electric platform inside a living plant cell.”

And indeed, there are countless enzymes in nature that produce countless other types of valuable substances. The next step for Yacoby and his team will be trying to achieve similar results with enzymes that produce other substances.

Photosynthetic pigments reflect green light, and those wavelengths hold the most energy. Image courtesy of Olena Shmahalo, Quanta Magazine.


 

They plan to start with the enzyme that produces ammonia, to generate a non-toxic and energy-saving alternative for agricultural fertilizers. That’s because the fertilizer industry’s current process is damaging the environment ecosystem. It releases nitrates into the atmosphere and potentially produces acid rain:

“If we can get plants to produce ammonia on their own, we don’t need to produce fertilizer at all. We can give up nitrogen fertilizer and allow plants to use nitrogen in the air without fertilizer.”

It will likely take at least 10-15 years before the study’s research can be fully tested, scaled, and applied for commercial results. But when it comes to turning plants into biological production machines, the possibilities will be truly endless. Yacoby sums up:

“Our study opens the door to a new field of agriculture, equivalent to wheat or corn production for food security—generating energy.”

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