Glowing plants - The greenest path to sustainable lightingWednesday 09 March 2022
Glowing plants have grown 10x brighter in just five years. All they require are advanced nanobionics, photonic capacitors and new, powerful phosphors. Don’t worry - we’ll explain.
Imagine a street, lit not by tall metal streetlamps, and small plastic footlights, but by large, luscious trees. A light source, which removes CO2 - the greenest lighting you could possibly have. This is the vision instilled in the scientists who are behind a fascinating study into the potential of using glowing plants as a light source.
Back in 2017, MIT published a study which proved the concept of inserting nanoparticles containing enzymes capable of glowing. While this was an important step, there were several limitations preventing the technology from being scaled. Now, five years later the research has found success by inserting phosphors between the mesophilic cell layers instead.
The research team elected to change their strategy, by developing a “light capacitor” which would store electrical energy and gradually release it as light. The plants were embedded with silica-covered phosphors made using strontium aluminate. For the experiment, a beam of blue light was shone onto the plants for ten seconds. The phosphors were then able to glow for about one hour, with the greatest brightness lasting for the first five minutes. Interestingly, the plants could then be continually recharged with bursts of blue light for two weeks after the initial experiment.
Several species of plant were tested, including tobacco, watercress, basil and the large Thailand elephant’s ear. Due to the light coming from inside the leaves, the beams had a distinctly green hue. Most fascinating is the fact that the plants were entirely capable of photosynthesising throughout the experiment, meaning that these insertions can be made with relatively low risk to the plants. Moreover, around 60% of the phosphors were recoverable after the experiment was finished, allowing for greater renewable potential, even after the death of a plant.
While we are a long way away from seeing this in the cities we live in now, there is clearly a great deal happening in new sciences of plant nanobionics. Who knows what else bionically optimised plants will be capable of, in a world where meaningful and powerful technologies are getting smaller and smaller?
It is unlikely that plants will ever entirely replace the powerful light fixtures needed for professional environments, but as scientists improve the efficiency of their light output, wide-ranging possibilities will continue to emerge.
Gordiichuk, P., Coleman, S., Zhang, G., Kuehne, M., Lew, T. T., Park, M., Cui, J., Brooks, A. M., Hudson, K., Graziano, A. M., Marshall, D. J., Karsan, Z., Kennedy, S., & Strano, M. S. (2021). Augmenting the living plant mesophyll into a photonic capacitor. Science Advances, 7(37). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abe9733
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