An innovative Dutch company hopes to add living plants power to the list of sustainable energy sources. When we think of energy most of us still call to mind a vision of coal power plants. We imagine towering smoke stacks billowing fumes to feed our thirst for electricity.

But in the last few decades that image has shared the spotlight with some newer and greener technologies.

Solar farms, wind farms, and hydro power stations have all charged into the game and offered consumers an array of energy choices.

But now, Marjolein Helder and David Strik hope to add a new energy source to the equation: living plants.

Can Living Plants Power the World?

Plant-e, a spin-off company from the sub-department of Environmental Technology from Wageningen University, likes to think so.

Plant-e’s patented technology can pull electricity from living plants without causing any harm to the plant itself or the surrounding environment.

Yes Magazine has a great infographic explaining the plant power process.

Here’s how it works:

  • Photosynthesis
    • Plants absorb light and combine it with carbon dioxide to make water and sugar.
  • Plant Waste
    • The plants only use about ½ of the sugar they produce for food, the rest of it gets dumped into the soil through the roots.
  • Breakdown
    • Bacteria in the soil break down the sugars and create protons and electrons in the process.
  • Electrodes
    • A carbon conductor is placed in the soil to scoop up the extra electrons.
  • Extraction
    • A power harvester collects the extra electrons.
  • Electricity!
    • The energy you’ve gathered can now be used to charge a cell phone, turn on a light, or power a wifi network.

If you’re more of a visual learner, you can check out Plant-e’s two-minute animation describing how living plants power small- to medium-sized electronic devices.

I want living plant power!

Don’t we all! This is an amazing new technology that has the potential to change the way we think of energy production on our planet. But, the tech is ways off from being economically viable.

There are a couple of conditions that the system needs to operate.

  • Wetlands

The system needs water to encourage the flow of electrons from the bacteria into the conductor. That means plants that grow in wetland environments are best suited.

However, Plant-e sees a lot of potential with the eventual large-scale application of this technology to rice paddies, peatlands, and mangroves.

The best part is there’s no ill effect to the plants producing the energy, which means a rice paddy could produce both electricity and food. Now that’s efficiency!

  • Warmth

To have living plants power our world, the soil can’t be frozen.

The technology is best suited for temperate climates and areas close to the equator where it’s easier for plants to grow.

  • Space

Right now, the system can produce about one watt per square meter.  According to the World Economic Forum, that means you’d need about 125 square meters to power the average home in the Netherlands.

But homes in the Netherlands have much lower energy requirements than North America. (They only use about a third of what the average American household consumes per month!)

For the technology to become viable a couple of things will have to happen:

  1. We’ll need to be more efficient with our energy use, and
  2. the technology will have to become more efficient itself.

But they’re on their way. In fact, Plant-e believes it’s possible to increase the output of their system 300%: three watts per square meter instead of just one!

What’s next?

The modular systems Plant-e currently sells are great, but the company knows this isn’t the most efficient route to have living plants power our world.

Instead, they’re working on larger application methods.

Tubular systems

Plant-e is developing a tubular system that can be installed beneath wetlands (like the rice paddies we talked about earlier).

This method involves drilling horizontally underneath the field at a depth of 5-30 centimeters to maintain proximity with the plants’ root systems.

Plus, because of the horizontal drilling method, the plants won’t be disturbed. It’s completely non-invasive.


The potential of living plants power

In a TED talk by Marjolein Helder, one of Plant-e’s founders, done in 2014 she tells us that just 15% of the wetlands worldwide could generate all the electricity our planet needs.

She even sings “It’s not easy being green” at the end of her talk. Now that’s an entrepreneur with passion!
Do you think plant power has the potential to become an important part of how we power our planet? Let us know in the comments!

About The Author

John Keirstead
John Keirstead
Serial Entrepreneur, Technologist and Inventor my objective is to develop useful products that have a net positive effect in the lives of those that use them and the environment that we live in. CEO of Mission LED Lighting Company Ltd.

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