A new source of renewable energy from plants is about to be born

A new source of renewable energy from plants is about to be born

A European venture of scientists, technology developers and companies have just started to research on how electricity and relevant information of the environment can be obtained from sap in plants thanks to an experimental and radically innovative technology. The new device will be innocuous for the plant and will have a direct application for the development of environmental monitoring sensors in urban, agricultural and forest areas.

Environmental managers in our cities and towns, farmlands and forests use detailed information about their environments obtained in situ and in a distributed way, for example on air, water or soil quality. This data facilitates the anticipation of problems in these environments before their consequences are visible, responding earlier and in a more effective way.

However, current monitoring technology has significant limitations when it comes to deploying sensors in the environment to capture information in site: environmental managers need a connection to the electrical grid, batteries that have to be replaced or need to rely on discontinuous power sources, such as solar energy. To successfully achieve this distributed deployment, we need to transcend current technology and develop methodologies to transform the new information obtained into decisions that improve the monitored environment.

The research consortium is going to develop a new device for in situ environmental monitoring of plants, powered by clean energy extracted from the sap. The Technological Institute of Energy (ITE Spain) will leaded the consortium bringing together several members of CSIC (Spain), KTH (Sweden), the universities of Lübeck (Germany) and Zagreb (Croatia), the German company Cybertronica and the Polish company CIM-MES. The result was the preparation of a Horizon 2020 project evaluated with the highest possible score by the European Commission.

During the next 4 years, the WatchPlant project will develop the first proofs of concept of this new device for in situ environmental monitoring, powered by clean energy extracted from the sap of vegetal organisms. The scientific team will use this device to prove the relationship between the environment and the plant in terms of effects of pullution, in order to predict and monitor in the future the impact of environmental managers’ decisions, taking into account socio-ecological interactions, the consequences of climate change, the impact of pollution on human health, and a wide range of parameters on environmental sustainability.

Thanks to this device, plants in cities, agricultural fields and forests will become intelligent biohybrid organisms providing information from a network of intelligent devices; a wide array of new and state-of-the-art data related to their environment and the physiology of the plants themselves. Plants will be equipped with artificial intelligence components and interfaces to operate wireless and distributed across a complex network relying on the electricity from the sap of the plant. Using the new models for decision-making, environmental managers will be able to make more effective action. The biofuel cell for plants opens up new fields of potential application beyond sensing yet to be imagined. However, it will need to overcome the scientific challenges related to disruptive research.

To solve them, the European scientific team of WatchPlant combines disciplines oriented to the same result. In Spain, the Technological Institute of Energy (Valencia Region) will focus on the development of bioelectrodes for sensing and energy harvesting applications, CSIC-IDAEA (Catalonia) will be in charge of air quality monitoring in urban environments, while CSIC-IRNAS (Andalusia) will investigate plant physiology. KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden) will provide microfabrication, Cybertronica (Germany) electronics and sensor development, and CIM-MES (Poland) microfluidic modeling. The Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science of the University of Zagreb (Croatia) will develop communication networks, and the University of Lübeck (Germany) will be responsible for incorporating artificial intelligence.