Sowing a Supercharged Future

Science, Technology 2014-03-21

Plants are a valuable and essential source for human life. Not only do they provide food, fuel and medicines; they regulate Earth’s water cycle and climate, and crucially serve to release the oxygen that we breathe.  We depend on plants to survive and thrive, and as a technology platform, plants are extremely attractive. Explained by researcher and Professor of Chemical Engineering Michael Strano, “it is important that we start to see plants as the starting point of technology. They have these advantages of self-repair, they’re environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution.”

For years researchers have been trying to overcome the inefficiencies of photosynthesis. Chloroplasts do not absorb green light, nor the sun’s infrared light. The photosynthesis process maxes out at roughly 10% of the incoming sunlight – wasting a significant amount more of those precious sunbeams than is used. [Source, Scientific American]. Given the fundamental properties of plants achieved at 10% efficiency – imagine the revolutionary potential that could be accomplished if we were to cultivate a species of bionic photosynthesizers.

Strano’s team of biochemists and chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this week reported to Nature Materials of developments that are allowing them to harness the incredible energy and potential of plants to sow a supercharged futuristic field of ‘plant nanobionics.’

By watering plants with carbon nanotubes via a vascular infusion, or a second method known as LEEP (lipid exchange envelope penetration, a plant can be augmented to function as a photonic chemical sensor, proven to boost a plants’ ability to capture light energy by 30%.

Taking plants to the next level of energy production could mean a world without cell phone towers and streetlights, but instead one with trees catalyzed by chemiluminescence to light your way at night, and the ability to emit a signal to your cell.  Varying the inserted nanotubes will also allow scientists to detect different gases, and the paper’s lead author, biologist Juan Pablo Giraldo indicates that plants could one day operate as self-powered devices that work as detectors for explosives in airports. By enhancing the growth of plants, Strano also sees potential to generate “bags of chlorophyll” for fuel.

Switching over to renewable and sustainable energy sources achieved through nanotechnology has the ability to solve major global problems, radically improving manufacturing development and its economical impacts in order to better meet human needs. Though small, nanoparticles are certainly delivering bigger promise of a greener future.