Plug into a plant: A new approach to clean energy harvesting


May 10, 2013

New technology out of the University of Georgia allows energy generated by plants through photosynthesis to be captured before the plants can make use of it (Image: Shutterstock)

New technology out of the University of Georgia allows energy generated by plants through photosynthesis to be captured before the plants can make use of it (Image: Shutterstock)

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Millions of years of evolution has resulted in plants being the most efficient harvesters of solar energy on the planet. Much research is underway into ways to artificially mimic photosynthesis in devices like artificial leaves, but researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) are working on a different approach that gives new meaning to the term “power plant.” Their technology harvests energy generated through photosynthesis before the plants can make use of it, allowing the energy to instead be used to run low-powered electrical devices.

Photosynthesis turns light energy into chemical energy by splitting water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen. This process produces electrons that help create sugars that the plant uses to fuel growth and reproduction. A team led by Ramaraja Ramasamy, assistant professor in the UGA College of Engineering, is developing technology that would interrupt the photosynthesis process and capture the electrons before the plant puts them to use creating sugars.

The technology involves interrupting the pathways along which the electrons flow by manipulating the proteins contained in thylakoids. Thylakoids are membrane-bound compartments at the site of the light reactions of photosynthesis that are responsible for capturing and storing energy from sunlight.

The modified thylakoids are immobilized on a specially designed backing of carbon nanotubes that acts as an electrical conductor to capture the electrons and send them along a wire. The researchers say that small-scale experiments of this system have yielded a maximum current density that is two orders of magnitude larger than previously reported for similar systems.

While you won’t be running your HDTV off the nearest tree anytime soon, Ramasamy says the technology has the potential to find its way into less power-intensive applications in the not too distant future.

"In the near term, this technology might best be used for remote sensors or other portable electronic equipment that requires less power to run," he said. "If we are able to leverage technologies like genetic engineering to enhance stability of the plant photosynthetic machineries, I'm very hopeful that this technology will be competitive to traditional solar panels in the future."

Ramasamy and his team are already working to improve the stability and output of the technology to get it to a stage suitable for commercialization.

"We have discovered something very promising here, and it is certainly worth exploring further," he said. "The electrical output we see now is modest, but only about 30 years ago, hydrogen fuel cells were in their infancy, and now they can power cars, buses and even buildings."

The team’s study appears in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

Source: University of Georgia

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

"Millions of years have evolution has resulted in plants being the most efficient harvesters of solar energy on the planet." - This isn't true. People make devices that are way better than plants. Sugar Cane is natures top performer at ~8% efficient, people have gotten algae up to 12% in special settings. Commercially produced solar modules on rooftops near you are 14% efficient.

Brian Atchley

You have a good point Brian. Making solar panels more efficient seems to be a better use of time than making an unnatural tree or plant through the use of genetic engineering.

There are good uses for genetic engineering though, for instance helping to reduce the incidence of human illnesses. We just need to be very cautious.


That statement is true, but needs qualification. While silicon solar cells have an overall efficiency that is quite high, their quantum efficiency is quite low. For plants, the opposite is true. The idea here is that starting with nearly 100% quantum efficiency is the best path toward greater overall efficiency. So in regards to quantum efficiency ( useful energy / photons captured ) plants are the most efficient harvesters. They just don't capture all that many photons. To me that sounds like an engineering problem.

Anthony Vito

Also while solar cells today may be more efficient, i think the amount of energy that goes into creating the solar collecting surface, or in this case the whole plant, aswell as using the energy colelcted, is obviously vastly lower. The plant is very efficient as most biological things are at creating biological material that serves a purpose in this case photosynthesis.

Maby slightly offtopic but i think worth pointing out.


So what happens to the plant? if it doesn't make sugars anymore, it will die.

Mario Ljubicic

in case of some genetic engineering solution in the future - it looks like the mains will be in the fruit's and seed's location . Some how the energy of the plants is concentrated there .

Angel Vardjiisky

I second Mario's comment and add that from a conservation stand-point, the idea makes me nervous. I'm all for artifical photosynthesis, but I'd rather a biomimicry of kleptoplastic material for singular objects, rather than stealing energy from plants. Quite a bully move actually.

Saachi Sadcha

Poor plant, but on the opposite side, what if the depriprivation of the electrons for the plant made it evolve to be more efficient so it could help itself more?

Andrew Zuckerman
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