Will Your Plants Produce Solar Power? Detect Bombs? Pollutants?

Will Your Plants Produce Solar Power? Detect Bombs? Pollutants?

Science programs have been showing us carbon nanotubes for years. Now there are techniques that may make plants into solar collectors and/or bomb or pollution sensors.
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Thursday, June 18, 2015 - 7:45am

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The idea for nanobionic plants grew out of a project to create self-repairing solar cells modeled on plant cells, chloroplasts. In plants, chloroplasts are self repairing. Once removed, they become fragile and easily injured. In research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers studied ways to enhance the photosynthetic function of chloroplasts isolated from plants, for possible use in solar cells. The MIT research could lead not only to ways to produce living solar cells but also give plants completely new functions, such as monitoring environmental pollutants, such as nitrous oxide.

The MIT researchers developed a  process that spontaneously incorporates and assembles carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and oxygen scavenging nanoparticles into plant chloroplasts, the part of plant cells that conduct photosynthesis—converting light into energy. Adding carbon nanotubes (CNTs) to chloroplasts enhanced photosynthesis by 30 to 49 percent, depending on whether the chloroplast was part of a living plant or had been removed for study. Other research demonstrated that incorporating cerium oxide nanoparticles also knows as nanoceria into the extracted chloroplasts significantly reduced concentrations of superoxide, a compound toxic to plants. The team also observed the enhanced plants could sense nitrous oxide (see middle photo -- above shows all parts of Arabidopsis Thaliana).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2013 nitrous oxide (N2O) accounted for about 5 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Nitrous oxide is naturally present, but human activities such as agriculture, burning fossil fuels, wastewater management and industrial processes are increasing the amount of N2O in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for an average of 114 years. One pound of N2Os effect on warming the atmosphere is almost 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide.