Engineers from MIT have created a light-emitting plant that has the capability to glow brightly for several minutes.
Embedded with nanoparticles that absorb light during the day, the plants release energy as luminescence once the lights go out.
The study, led by MIT Professor of Chemical Engineering Michael Strano, aims to develop plants that are bright enough to illuminate an indoor space for several hours.
“We wanted to create a light-emitting plant with particles that will absorb light, store some of it, and emit it gradually,” Strano explained.
“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.”
A new type of power plant
Strano’s study is one of the latest projects in the relatively new field of plant nanobiotics, which aims to equip plants with the capability to achieve things that would otherwise be impossible.
It is theorised that in the future, plants will be able to tackle issues like pollution and allow for greater monitoring of pesticides in agriculture.
Nanoparticles are infused into the plants through the surfaces of the leaves, where they form a thin film. This film then absorbs photons via sunlight or LED exposure. The researchers showed that after 10 seconds of blue LED exposure, the plants emitted light for over an hour.
“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 said.
“Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”
Branching out into brighter horizons
In the past, light-emitting plants relied on the luciferase gene — the enzyme that produces light seen in fireflies. It didn’t work as intended as the light produced was extremely dim.
The method developed by Strano’s lab can be used on any type of plant, with MIT demonstrating successful results with rocket, kale, spinach and watercress.
The team also found about 60 per cent of the phosphors could be extracted from the plants and re-used in another plant.
The researchers believe plant-based lighting could fundamentally shift how electrical energy is used in future.
Read more in Science Advances.