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Electricity from Leaves
May 7, 2015   
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An ordinary green leaf can prove to be a perfect source of power supply, according to researchers from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW) and the University of £ód¼, who are looking for a way to generate electricity from plants.

The researchers are unclear for now just how cost-efficient plants can prove to be as sources of electricity, or how much can be obtained from a single plant. But they hope to demonstrate that a single leaf can be used as a power supply throughout its lifetime.

According to Magdalena Górecka, D.Sc., from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, although plants cannot be transformed into huge power plants overnight, the energy obtained from them can be used, for instance, to generate power for smoke detectors in forests. Górecka is financing her research from funds obtained from the Foundation for Polish Science. The young researcher has placed second in the foundation’s Inter competition and won zl.100,000 in prize money.

In recent years, plants have been attracting much attention as potential sources of energy. Previously researchers were mainly interested in making biofuel from them. However, biofuel production involves toxic emissions resulting from the combustion of aromatic hydrocarbons or other substances, according to Górecka. That is why, she says, in her research she is seeking to produce clean, fully environmentally-friendly green energy.

The occurrence of electric current in a plant results from the plant’s exposure to the sun and the photosynthesis process. First, sunlight falls on the leaf and reaches the chloroplasts in its cells. Chloroplasts are specialized subunits in plant cells whose main role is to conduct photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which the sunlight gets converted into energy.

The electric current inside the plant can be controlled by adjusting the intensity of light. Energy production can also be boosted by increasing the amount of electrons released as well as the speed at which they are transferred within the chloroplast.

In order to obtain electricity from a plant in a safe manner it is necessary to use a device that will conduct it. However, simply sticking a wire into a plant is out of the question because this would damage the plant’s cells and the chloroplasts. Only a healthy chloroplast can ensure a proper flow of electrons.

In order to generate electricity from plants, the researchers plan to employ nanoparticles. These will intercept the electric charge from the chloroplast chain. Electricity generated in this way will be picked up by a specially designed electrode.

“Once we determine what kind of nanoparticles are able to do that, we will be halfway there,” says Górecka. “At the moment, we are testing various nanoparticles. We know already that nanoparticles of silver won’t do the trick because they are highly toxic and cause a lot of harm to the plants.”

It appears that the most difficult part will be devising the right kind of electrode. It must be transparent so as not to block the light for the plants. What’s more, it has to stick to the surface of the leaf and also penetrate inside in order to reach the chloroplasts.

Górecka’s team has already come up with an idea on how to construct the electrode using nanotechnology. “As soon as we start working on the electrode, we will look for plants with the largest and smoothest surface possible so that the electrode can stick to it firmly,” Górecka says.

O. M.
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