Situated on some of the lowest laying and flattest land in Europe, the Dutch face a future that is in perilous danger if sea level continue to rise due to climate change.   That may be why the new plant-based energy start-up Plant-e is getting so much attention.  The technology promises to generate electricity while supporting more carbon-absorbing plant life.

According to the Plant-e website the company has developed a “Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell that can “generate electricity from the natural interaction between living plant roots and soil bacteria.”

Plants grow by using photosynthesis.  As plants photosynthesize they produce organic material, however, only around 50 percent of the material is used by the plant itself.  The remaining 50 percent of this organic material is deposited in the soil surrounding the plant.  Bacteria surrounding the roots of the plant breakdown this residual organic material and it’s this bacterial interaction that has the potential to generate electricity.

As the bacteria consume the plants’ excess organic material, electrons are released.  Plant-e’s Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell absorbs these electrons by placing an electrode close to the bacteria at the plant’s root.

In its current configuration the Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell can generate 0.4 Watts of electricity per square meter of plant growth.  While this seems like a paltry sum, Helder believes that this number can be increased to 3.2 W per square meter in the coming years. If the e’s Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell were to achieve this degree of efficiency, a 100 square meter plot of land could generate enough electricity to power a home.

Already past the proof of concept phase, Plant-e has plans to apply their technology to large area marshlands.  Admittedly Plant-e knows that it has a lot of work to do before their technology is economically feasible. 

Plant-e was founded by Marjolein Helder and David Strik of Wageningen University.  According to a University of Wageningen press release, “Although the technology is promising, it is not yet fully developed. Techniques for making the system renewable and sustainable still need improvement, and ways must be found to limit the amount of material used by the electrodes.”

One area that is key to the improvement of the Plant-e system is the development of a better scheme for placing the Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell’s electrodes.  By optimizing the electrodes position around the plant’s roots a two-fold advantage is achieved.  First, better positioning of the electrodes can cause the amount of electricity received to increase, and second, this increase in performance can reduce the amount of electrodes needed in the system.

Scientists at Wageningen University have been delighted with the prospects for this technology. “It appears that this new renewable source is economically viable, will curb the pressure on the environment and is likely to be socially acceptable. It does not pollute the horizon (like wind turbines or ugly solar panels), does not interfere with nature (like dams) and the system does not compete with agricultural land in the debate on food and biofuels.”

As the world continues to search for new renewable methods of energy generation, ideas like Plant-e’s will become more necessary. Whether the technology can become a viable means of producing energy on a large scale has yet to be seen.  However, in places like the Netherlands the burden of climate change is giving ideas like the Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell greater authority.  

Read More at Plant-e

Images Courtesy of Plant-e and Wikipedia

 

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