Brand new studies that were funded by the United States Dept of Energy could create plants that will one day be bright enough to replace street lights. This move would save a lot of energy costs. Currently, energy used for lighting represents around 20 percent of energy consumption worldwide.
Clever Use of Firefly Enzymes
In a recent report posted in the publication called Nano Letters, MIT scientists from the University of California Berkley and Riverside, describes the process where they used nanotechnology to insert enzymes that are found in common fireflies into the leaves of plants so that they will emit light.
Thus far, these scientists have successfully to produced arugula, kale, spinach and even watercress that glows for around 4 hours. Michael Strano, who is the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering from MIT and also senior author of this study noted:
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp—a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself.”
These scientists employed three different molecules and packed them in unique nanoparticle carriers that delivered them to appropriate regions of the plants. The ensuing reaction that produced the light also needed an enzyme known as luciferase (which exists in the firefly) which acts on molecules that are called liciferin. There is also another molecule known as co-enzyme A which will help the process move along as it removes a reaction byproduct.
This method has proven to be a lot less laborious and more efficient as compared to attempts in the past to design these glow plants which were based on genetic engineering in order to get the proper chemical reaction. This new method only requires that the leaves be soaked in liquid and then is easily applied to different kinds of plants. Imagine how street lights could be replaced by trees that glow or even using a house plant instead of desk lamp.
This is certainly not the first time that MIT has tinkered with plants. As Strano notes, “Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment,” all of which makes them ideal for this kind of experimentation using nanobionics. Previously, his lab designed plants that are able to detect explosives, and even plants that are able to monitor current drought conditions.
Presently, the amount of light that is emitted from these plants is equal to around a thousandth of the light level that is need for reading. However, researchers are eager to begin optimizing this new technology. In the future, they are hoping to create brighter light and to come up with an efficient way to spray these nanoparticles directly onto the leaves of plants.
“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant,” Strano pointed out. “Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”
Another remarkable feature these scientists have been experimenting with is using a fourth molecule to turn the light off. This would create plants eventually that are able to shut down their light as a response to outside stimuli such as night time and sunlight.
Plant lamps would also have a big impact on the education taking place in developing nations, as popular tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa has explained:
“When people in remote parts of India, Africa, South America come home, they can’t study because they don’t have light. This is something we can’t comprehend in America: that you don’t have light, you can’t study, therefore children don’t get education. But this is a common problem in the developing world.”