Nanotechnology could turn shrubbery into supercharged energy producers

March 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

According to a report from MIT, a team of researchers seeking to increase the usefulness of plants has announced that they have successfully boosted plants’ ability to capture solar energy by 30 percent by embedding carbon nanotubes into the chloroplast – where photosynthesis occurs.  The researchers hope that the plants will be made even more useful by embedding nanomaterials that could augment their energy production and create entirely new functions – such as monitoring environmental pollutants.

The research findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Nature Materials, in an article titled, “Plant nanobionics approach to augment photosynthesis and biochemical sensing.”

“Plants are very attractive as a technology platform,” said Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering and leader of the MIT research team.  ”They repair themselves, they’re environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution.”

Strano and the paper’s lead author, plant biologist Juan Pablo Giraldo, envisage turning plants into self-powered, photonic devices such as detectors for explosives or chemical weapons.  The researchers are also working on introducing electronic devices into plants.  As a next step, the researchers sought to try enhancing the photosynthetic function of chloroplasts isolated from plants, for potential use in solar cells.

In an article in Business Insider Australia, Giraldo commented, “Right now, almost no-one is working in this emerging field.  It’s an opportunity for people from plant biology and the chemical engineering nanotechnology community to work together in an area that has a large potential.”

Chloroplasts host all of the tackle needed for photosynthesis, which occurs in two stages.  During the first stage, pigments such as chlorophyll absorb light, which stimulates electrons that flow through the thylakoid membranes of the chloroplast.  The plant captures this electrical energy and uses it to power the second stage of photosynthesis, in which the plant builds sugars.

To extend the chloroplasts’ productivity, the researchers embedded them with cerium oxide nanoparticles, also known as nanoceria.  These particles are strong antioxidants that scavenge oxygen radicals and other highly reactive molecules produced by light and oxygen, shielding the chloroplasts from damage.

With carbon nanotubes appearing to act as a “prosthetic photoabsorber,” photosynthetic activity was 49 percent greater than that in isolated chloroplasts without embedded nanotubes.  When nanoceria and carbon nanotubes were delivered together, the chloroplasts remained active for a few extra hours.

By adapting the sensors to different targets, the researchers hope to develop plants that could be used to monitor environmental pollution, pesticides, fungal infections, or exposure to bacterial toxins.  They are also working on incorporating electronic nanomaterials into plants.

Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark

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