A New Source of Futuristic Energy

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Environmental technology companies are turning to the untapped potential of soil and plants to power a greener society.

Mobile phone chargers now come in novel and unexpected varieties – as potted plants and self-assembled gardens, among others. Bioo Lite, developed by Barcelona-based Arkyne Technologies appears as a 25cm-tall plant capable of delivering a maximum of three charges per day using a 5V 1A USB charging port connected to the inside of the pot. Meanwhile, out there from nature’s own backyard, modules linked together form a square plot of greens capable of producing electricity.

Dr Marjolein Helder, CEO of Plant-e, a Dutch environmental technology company behind these DIY gardens, believes in the huge potential of generating clean energy from plants. Two years ago, the team at Plant-e launched Starry Sky, an energy project to power cell phone chargers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and over 300 LED streetlights at two sites in the Netherlands.

The Dutch are certainly no strangers to breakthrough technologies, and continue to be at the forefront of creative and clean-energy innovations. This is line with the country’s goals to have a reliable and affordable energy system in place by 2050, where carbon emissions will be halved and 40% of electricity will be derived from sustainable sources. Plant-e’s works are not only contributing to the country’s sustainability plans, but will play a role in revolutionising energy production as a whole.

“The Netherlands is focused on advancing energy efficiency policies, and recognises that one of the ways forward is with clean electricity. Through developments that bring minimal environmental costs but apparent economic benefits, we hope to expedite the adoption of clean energy globally,” says Elmar Bouma, Executive Director, Southeast Asia of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA), based in Singapore.

The NFIA offers complimentary consultations to companies planning to establish, expand or diversify their business operations in the Netherlands and Europe.

Plant Microbial Fuel Cell    

So what is the mechanism behind ‘biological batteries’ like the Bioo Lite and Plant-e Square? Known as Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell (PMFC), the technology harnesses electricity from the organic matter of living plants. Generated during photosynthesis, some of this organic matter (C6H12O6) is used for the plant’s growth, but a large part of it is excreted out of the roots and into the soil. Naturally occurring microorganisms around the plant’s roots break down these deposits into CO2 and water, releasing electrons in the process. Inert carbon electrodes inserted in the soil create an electrical circuit and act as a powerful battery once connected. In this case, the anode first captures the electrons, which then combine with protons and oxygen from the air to produce water and electricity at the cathode. The PMFC produces electricity using endless cycles with self-repairing catalysts, all the while working within the conditions of standard ecosystems.

Plant Microbial Fuel Cell technology involves the use of inert electrodes that form an electrical circuit and act as a battery once connected.
Plant Microbial Fuel Cell technology involves the use of inert electrodes that form an electrical circuit and act as a battery once connected

Requiring only sunlight, water and CO2 to work, the technology generates electricity in an eco-friendly manner. Already, plans are underway to further scale up its applications, specifically, with the installation of a series of underground tubes to facilitate the supply of energy to buildings and houses. Targeted areas include rice fields, salt marshes and deltas; these are most suited for large-scale production of plant electricity, given their waterlogged roots. If applied in all wetlands, the harnessed energy could potentially cover up to 60% of the global electricity consumption. Better yet, the plants can continue to grow unaffected, especially as the use of graphite- or carbon-based electrodes prevents the pollution and plant damage that can arise from corrosion-prone metal electrodes.

Only needing sunlight, water and CO2 to work, PMFC technology appeals with its ability to generate electricity cleanly
Only needing sunlight, water and CO2 to work, PMFC technology appeals with its ability to generate electricity cleanly

Continuous Energy Source

A further advantage of the PMFC is that it can work round the clock, since the processes that break down organic matter in the soil are recurring, meaning a reliable supply of electricity is guaranteed. Plant-e’s research revealed that a green roof with a surface area of 50 square metres can continuously provide 150 watts, equivalent to about a third of the electricity needs of an average household. Larger estimates suggest that a hectare of plants is capable of producing approximately 14,000 watts of electricity – enough to meet the energy needs of about 28 households for an entire year.

There are plans to improve power output, but this would involve working on the materials for the electrodes, developing their positioning and increasing the number of electrode pairs. Currently, only one pair of electrodes per square metre is being used, yielding about 1V. Efficient production of electricity would take 5V or 12V, either by making a series of electrodes or using power converters.

Despite the limitations, Plant-e’s technology is making exciting progress towards building a greener future. The company is currently developing a tubular system in wet areas such as peat land, mangrove swamps and rice paddies, and aims to introduce a market-ready product in the next few years – the dream is to eventually bring green electricity to off-grid communities and have the technology make a real difference to people’s lives.

The Bioo Lite is capable of charging mobile phones up to 3 times a day by using a USB charging port connected to the plant's soil base
The Bioo Lite is capable of charging mobile phones up to 3 times a day by using a USB charging port connected to the plant’s soil base

The Future is Greener

The New Energy Outlook, released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, projects that zero-emission energy sources will make up 60% of global installed capacity by 2040, with wind and solar slated to become the cheapest forms of producing electricity by 2030. Asia Pacific is expected to lead in investments, accounting for half of all new funding towards renewable energy.

While clean technologies are set to redefine the way we use and preserve our natural resources, they will also form the solutions that ensure universal access to green energy, especially in impoverished regions. In Southeast Asia, for example, wetlands abound but electricity is often unavailable – according to the World Bank, less than one third of the Cambodian population and less than half in Myanmar have access to electricity. PMFC and the works of Plant-e stand to bring vast benefits to these areas.

“The added challenges of population increases and growing energy demands mean that alternative forms of energy, like plant-generated electricity, will only continue to gain traction. Green innovations coming out of the Netherlands, similarly, will expand existing efforts to build a more sustainable future for people everywhere,” Mr Bouma adds.

Elmar Bouma - Executive Director-SEA, NFIA
Elmar Bouma – Executive Director-SEA, NFIA

For more information on sustainable energy or investment opportunities in the Netherlands, contact: Mr Elmar Bouma, Executive Director, Southeast Asia, the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA), Tel: +65 6739 1135, Email: bouma@nfia-singapore.com or Ms Adeline Tan, Country Manager, Tel: +65 6739 1137, Email: tan@nfia-singapore.com or visit www.investinholland.com.

 

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Scientist-entrepreneur-manager-journalist: -Co-founder, Author; Former Assistant Editor and Director, Biotechin.Asia, Biotech Media Pte. Ltd.; -Founder & CEO, SciGlo (www.sciglo.com); -Programme Management Officer, SBIC, A*STAR (former Research Fellow). --Sandhya graduated from University of Madras, India (B.Sc Microbiology and M.Sc Biotechnology) and received her Ph.D from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She worked on oxidative stress in skin, skeletal, adipose tissue and cardiac muscle for a decade from 2006-2016. She is currently working as a Programme Management Officer handling projects and grants at Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). Earlier to this she was a Research Fellow in the Fat Metabolism and Stem Cell Group at SBIC. Sandhya was also the Vice President and Publicity Chair of A*PECSS (A*STAR Post Doc Society) (2014-2016). Recently she founded a platform for scientists - SciGlo (www.sciglo.com) and is a startup mentor at Vertical VC (Finland). She is an ardent lover of science and enjoys globe trotting and good vegetarian food.