Sustainable sources of energy, which are pollution free and eco-friendly, are one of the crucial challenges in the future society of the world. A team of biologists and robotics from the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Pontedera at Pisa, Italy made new discoveries on living plants that can help generate electricity.
The researchers said that the living plants are the source of ‘green power’ which is promising for electrical supplies in the future that ideally integrate in the natural environment and are accessible across the globe.
Through a single leaf, plants can generate over 150 volts, enough to power around 100 LED light bulbs at a time, according to the researchers. They also showed that a ‘hybrid tree’ composed of natural as well as artificial leaves can act as novel green electrical generator through the conversion of wind into electricity.
The team of researchers coordinated by Barbara Mazzolai is based at IIT’s Center for Micro-Bio Robotics (CMBR) in Pontedera and their objective is performing advanced research to develop nature-based innovative methodologies, new materials, and robotic technologies.
Such approaches can help develop technologies and robots that are more suitable for unstructured environments than the existing solutions. Barbara also coordinated ‘Plantoid’, an EU funded project in 2012, which developed the first plant robot. In an earlier research, the researchers studied plants and revealed that the leaves can produce electricity when touched by the wind or a distinct material.
Certain structures of the leaf have the ability to convert mechanical forces applied on the surface into electrical energy due to the specific composition naturally produced by most plant leaves. Because of a process known as contact electrification, the leaf is capable of gathering electric charges on its surface, the researchers said. The charges are then quickly transmitted into the inner plant tissue which is equivalent to ‘cable’ and sends the generated electricity to other parts of the plant. Therefore, by connecting a plug to the plant stem, the generated electricity can be harvested and used to power various electronic devices.
Findings of the study were detailed in a research paper and published in Advanced Functional Materials where the team described how such effects can be utilized to convert wind into electricity by plants.
For the study, the research team added artificial leaves to a Nerum oleander tree that came in contact with the natural leaves. When these leaves move due to the wind, the hybrid plant generates electricity. As the generation of electricity increases, more leaves are touched that can be easily increased by exploiting the entire surface of the foliage of a tree.
It is an initial study for an EU funded project ‘Growbot’ that Barbara will coordinate in 2019. The project aims to realize bio-inspired robots that use plant-like growing motions. These new robots will be then powered by the novel plant-derived source, showing that the plants may become one of the electrical supplies in the future.