Hembrug, Netherlands — In what could be an initial step in a global energy revolution, Dutch company Plant-E, in an ambitious energy project labeled “Starry Sky,” this month illuminated 300 LED lights using a new process that utilizes the energy of living plants.
“Starry Sky” and another similar project, “Plant-E,” are the initial two commercial undertakings by the company, utilizing the new technology. The emerging technology is thus far able to power lighting, Wi-Fi hotspots, mobile chargers and rooftop electricity modules, according to Yes Magazine.
But Marjolein Helder, co-founder and CEO of Plant-E, foresees a technological revolution on the horizon. While the idea of creating a new clean energy option using living plants is amazing, the reality of being able to generate power to some of the most poverty-stricken regions on the globe may be even more critical.
Plant-E has plans to incorporate the use of this technology in existing wetlands and rice paddies to begin larger scale power generation. The current projects, which lit up the Netherlands this past month, used a native aquatic plant to produce the energy.
According to a report by Yes Magazine:
The process involves plants growing in modules—two-square-foot plastic containers connected to other modules—where they undergo the process of photosynthesis and convert sunlight, air, and water into sugars. The plants use some of the sugars to grow, but they also discharge a lot of it back into the soil as waste. As the waste breaks down, it releases protons and electrons. Plant-e conducts electricity by placing electrodes into the soil.
The process used by Plant-E is called a “sediment microbial fuel cell,” according to Ramaraja Ramasamy, an adjunct professor at the University of Georgia College of Engineering. Ramasamy cautions that while the technology is in its infancy it will not be able to compete against current alternative energy sources, such as wind turbines or solar panels.
“It’s not making enough energy to have any reliable commercial product. That doesn’t mean that it will not be. We are too early in the research,” Ramasamy reasoned. “If I come to you and say, ‘Do you want to power that 100-watt bulb?’ You probably need an acre of land and dirt to get the electricity from. Is that feasible? No.”
Current applications of the technology would be better suited to the developing world, in which energy needs are still relatively low, but the new process holds great potential.
According to Helder, a one-square-meter garden should be able to produce 28 kilowatt-hours per year. The average U.S. home consumed 10,837 kilowatt-hours in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Using these numbers, it would take approximately 4,000 square feet of plant/yard to produce enough energy to power the average American home.
Even at the massive amounts of energy used by the average U.S. household, a large yard is all it would take to get off the grid completely using this innovative technology.
The amount of energy derived from the plants also varied based upon climate, as the technology stops working when the ground freezes. For a couple of weeks in the winter Plant-E’s energy installations stop producing due to the extreme cold. Climate will potentially dictate where this product ultimately is used.
Plant-E’s next step is to begin electricity generation using existing wetlands. Engineers will be inserting a tube horizontally below the surface of a wetland, peat bog, mangrove, rice paddy, or river delta, utilizing the same process as the modular system.
“Modular systems are interesting, but you can only scale up to a certain size because it’s pretty labor- and material-intensive,” Helder said.
The company has been working on a tubular system prototype but has run into funding difficulties.
“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,” Helder said.
Plant-E hopes to begin field tests soon on the modular system, with a commercial product hopefully ready within a few years.
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