Plants are able to create energy from sunlight through the process of photosynthesis. Manmade solar panels were created to do the same thing, though it turns out they are much better at it than plants, as some solar panels are about ten times more efficient at generating electricity. However, the process isn’t perfect. One lab decided to blend nature and modern scientific advances and has actually extracted energy straight from plants by interrupting photosynthesis to create truly green energy. The team comes from the University of Georgia and has published their results in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.
During photosynthesis, plants use carbon dioxide and water to create energy for the plant in the form of starch and sugar. Oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis and is formed after the water molecules have been split by enzymes. Hydrogen ions and electrons are also formed at this step and are released to run the rest of the process. Photosynthesis has fueled plant life for about 450 million years, but the team has found a new way to use this process to benefit growing human demands for energy.
Once the enzyme splits the water molecule, nanotubes siphon off the newly freed electrons before they can enter the electron transport chain. This was accomplished by altering the thylakoids, which are the structures inside chloroplast where light-dependent reactions in photosynthesis occur. The electrons are then directed down a wire and generate an electrical current.
When the team tested the current from a plant against one from a similar sized solar cell, they discovered the current generated from the plant was about twice as strong as the cell. Because plants are much less efficient at generating energy from the sun than the solar cell, these results were fairly surprising, yet encouraging.
Of course, this technology is still brand new and there are not any practical uses for it yet. However, everything has to start somewhere. In the future, plants could be used to create energy right in the home to power everyday items like lights, TVs, and computers. It could even be used to power entire grids, if it can be developed on such a large scale. Using plants in this manner would likely boost the amount of foliage planted, which will have the added bonus of better scenery and decreased air pollution.