Lighting accounts for about 20% of global energy consumption. In an effort to reduce that percentage, scientists at MIT have turned to plant nanobionics, infusing plants with nanoparticles that lend them novel attributes.
In 2017, a team of researchers led by MIT chemical engineer Michael Strano embedded nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, causing it to emit a low-intensity light.
The team discovered that an enzyme called luciferase, the same enzyme that makes fireflies glow, acts on a molecule called luciferin, causing it to emit light. A molecule called coenzyme A supports the process by eliminating byproduct reactions.
According to the MIT Technology Review, “The researchers used silica nanoparticles about 10 nanometers in diameter to carry luciferase, and they used slightly larger particles of the polymers PLGA and chitosan to carry luciferin and coenzyme A, respectively.” The particles were suspended in a solution. The plants were immersed in the solution and later exposed to high pressure, which encouraged the particles to enter the plant’s leaf system.
Though the light generated by the first watercress seedling was dim, light production has since been augmented by adjustments to the concentration and release rates of the components. Researchers also have fine-tuned ways to turn plant light off using luciferase-inhibiting nanoparticles.
The team hopes that its findings may pave the way for streetlamps that are nanobionic trees and plants that provide indirect lighting in homes. Who knows, one day we may be perusing pages by plant light.
With that in mind, Strano has recently partnered with architect Sheila Kennedy on design projects that incorporate nanobionic plants and explore ways in which they may contribute to a sustainable energy future. Their building design is on display as a part of Cooper Hewitt’s Design Triennial at the Smithsonian Design Museum through January 2020.