Plant-e is a Dutch company that conducted a new energy project that was called “Starry Sky”. This event happened in Hembrug, (Netherlands), in a park where over 300 LED lights were illuminated. The light bulbs were ordinary, but what wasn’t ordinary was the electricity. The electricity was derived from living plants.
This company also uses that electricity to power mobile chargers, Wi-Fi hot spots, and rooftop electricity modules, all powered by living plants. How is this possible?
Plant-e is the first company to produce electricity from plants
Marjolein Helder, the CEO and Plant-e’s co-founder says this technology is revolutionary because it is a new clean energy option from living plants without damaging them. In fact, the idea of using plants and the process of photosynthesis to produce energy is not a brand new one. Students in middle schools have been making clocks made from potatoes using a similar principle.
Explaining the principle of generating electricity using plants
The project involved native aquatic plants supplied by local greenhouses. Plants were grown in modules – two-square-foot plastic containers. These were connected to other modules.
There they undergo photosynthesis where they turn air, sunlight, and water into sugars. Some of the sugars are used for the plants’ growth, but some are also put back into the soil as waste. Then, waste breaks down and it releases electrons and protons. Finally, the Plant-e company produces electricity by putting those electrodes into the soil.
As the sun shines, plants’ leaves absorb light. The leaves combine this energy with the carbon dioxide as well as with the water and they make sugar. Sugar is the plant’s food.
- Plant waste
The extra sugar that isn’t used by the plant (half of the sugar made) is excreted in the soil through the roots.
Sugars are broken down in the soil by bacteria. This is how protons and electrons are produced.
The company Plant-e puts a carbon conductor in the soil. There, bacteria donate an electron. Electrons made when the sugar breaks down flow into the electrode.
The electrons are transferred to a power harvester.
Although it may look as an easy task, producing electricity from plants is not easy at all. A professor at the University of Georgia, College of Engineering, Ramaraja Ramasamy, claimed that the company Plant-e uses a “sediment microbial fuel cell”.
This technology, according to him, is not advanced enough to compare itself and compete with wind turbines and solar panels. However, this is because the company is very early in the research, which does not mean that there won’t be anything new and successful in the future. This new type of energy might be successful in other parts of the world where people don’t use high amounts of electricity.
The future plan of Plant-e
Helder explains the size of a garden needed to produce 28 kilowatt-hours per year and it is a one-square-meter garden. The U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics say that the average amount of electricity that a home used in one year was 10,837 kilowatt-hours in 2012. Thus, it would take around 4,000 square feet of space in order to power one of our houses, which is basically the size of a big backyard.
In contrast, an average house in the Netherlands uses 3,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity yearly, a press release from Plant-e states. This means that a Netherlands house could be powered by an area of Plant-e modules around one third the size of our houses.
This new type of energy depends very much on the climate. For instance, Plant-e’s installations stop producing electricity one or two weeks when the weather is too cold in the Netherlands, because when the ground freezes the technology stops working.
The future plans for the Plant-e company are the usage of existing wetlands in generating electricity. Their plan is for engineers to put a tube horizontally just below the surface of a wetland, peat bog, mangrove, or river delta, and then to do the same process as the modular system mentioned above. A prototype tubular system was produced last year. However, due to financial issues, it didn’t start as it was planned to in July.
Modular vs. tubular system
Helder again compares both the modular as well as the tubular system. He says that modular systems, as good as they are, can only scale up to a certain size because they require a lot of material as well as labor. In contrast, tubular systems can just be “rolled out through the field” and work well because the plants used are already there.
Because of that reason, tubular system could work better in terms of large scale and for the long term. This is good information for the future, because many years still have to pass before the tubular system can go into production. The Plant-e company is willing to start the field pilots as soon as possible, but the products will still need two or three years to finish the demo stage. After the demo stage, the commercial product would be ready for the market.
The founders of the company also hope that this technology will be able to bring this new type of energy to poor areas where plants are abundant – for instance in rice paddies or close to wetlands. They also hope to bring electricity to people who have never had it, which is nearly 25 percent of the population in the world.