Ordinary roses or a living, renewable biofuel source? Possible both? A group of Swedish scientists have made an epic breakthrough by successful incorporating functioning circuitry into a living organism (in this case, a common rose). They recently released their discoveries which successfully caused ions within the rose’s leaves to light up. The next step is using electronic-organic plants to acts as biofuel power plants. (image via Panoramic Images)
It seems that technology has triumphed over nature once more – taking something once sublime and beautiful and turning it into a cold, calculated machine. Never before were scientists able to successfully combine organic plant matter and electronic circuits without killing the plant. Now, a Swedish group of researchers from of Linköping University have released their chilling findings in Science Advances. Their project started in 2012, after many unsuccessful attempts. It seems that this time they are on the right track with a breakthrough that may change our relationships with plants and the whole natural world forever.
It starts with a rose: a beautiful and temperamental plant whose only function is to look beautiful. However, why simply enjoy a thing of beauty when you can turn it into an instrument, perhaps the rose can serve as a radio transmitter, or renewable energy source instead of just sitting there; or at least that is what many scientists may think. The issue with combining plants and electronics was that scientists were trying to splice them together somehow, or combine the inorganic with the organic by inorganic means.
A schematic of how their new technology works from their journal article (via Berggren et al., 2015, Science Advances, Vol. 1, no. 10)
The genius of Magnus Breggren and his team from Sweden is that they have discovered how to use the natural functions of the plant and its components to create electronic circuitry. They have used a synthetic polymer which they feed to the plant the way plants feed on water for nutrients. As the polymer makes its way up the vascular system of the rose stem, it becomes a part of the xylem, the leaves, the veins, and the signals of the rose. These components of the plant are then used as the main components of the circuitry which allow electronics and organic bodies to merge and act as one.
Their current synthetic polymer mixture creates a wire that’s up to 10 cm long inside of the stem (xylem) without impeding the rose’s ability to absorb water and nutrients. Via this method, the group of scientists was able to light ions within the leaves of the plants. Berggren was so surprised that their experiments have actually worked that he can’t wait to test out new projects: among them is a biofuel concept. Berggren told Motherboard, “Right now we are trying to put electrodes into the leaves with enzymes that we connect to the electrodes,” he said. “The sugar that is produced in the leaves is converted by the enzyme; they deliver a charge to the electrode and then hopefully we can collect that charge in a biofuel cell.”
This latest proposition could entirely change our relationship with plants, as forests could turn into renewable power plants for nearby cities. Berggren hopes that this new biofuel possibility will allow us to gain resources from our natural world without destroying it. However, how viable is the health of the rose in the long term? No one knows. It is still very early days, but there is no doubt that science is about to get weirder as electronics and plants can truly begin to meld into a cyborg technology for years to come.
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