Australasia's home for timber news and information

The power in trees

In coming years, instead of plugging into a power socket to charge your smartphone’s depleting battery, you could instead be sucking power from a tree. Source: Techly

That’s the plan, with Dutch company Plant-e getting closer to utilising the power of living plants.

Last month, in the Dutch town of Hembrug, a small crowd witnessed more than 300 LED lights illuminate a park. Yet it wasn’t any ordinary light show, the bulbs had electricity running through them that was derived from a process that harnesses the power of trees.

The energy project, Starry Sky, was the first instance where electricity was produced from plants without damaging them.

A similar project happened simultaneously an hour down the road, near Plant-e’s headquarters in Wageningen.

Co-founder and chief executive Marjolein Helder said that the technology could prove revolutionary, bringing a new clean-energy option to the world.

The technology is not a new idea, high school science students have been powering clocks from potatoes for years but Plant-e’s development is the first to harvest power without damaging the source.

Helder came up with the idea while working on his master’s thesis in environmental technology at Wageningen University.

The project involves growing plants in square-foot plastic containers, which connect to other modules, where they undergo a process of photosynthesis and convert sunlight, air and water into sugars.

The plants use some of the sugars to grow, but discharge most of it back into the soil as waste. As this waste breaks down it releases protons and electrons, and Plant-e conducts electricity by placing electrodes into the soil.

A one-square-metre garden reportedly produces just 28 kilowatt hours per year at the moment.

A household in Holland uses on average 3500 kilowatt hours per year, so it’s nowhere near ready to replace solar panels and wind turbines, but the company is hopeful they can get there.

That’s why Plant-e are planning on expanding, placing tubes horizontally beneath the surface of wetlands, mangroves, river deltas and rice paddies to harvest energy. “Modular systems are interesting, but you can only scale up to a certain size because it’s pretty labor and material intensive,” Helder said. “A tubular system can just be rolled out through the field and it just works because the plants are already there. So for the longer term, for the really large scale, that’s much more interesting.”

This is where the potential emerges of providing power sources to some of the world’s poorest regions, although that’s still years away from reality, as is presenting the technology as a commercial product.