Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden have created analog and digital electronics circuits inside living plants. The group at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics (LOE), under the leadership of Professor Magnus Berggren, have used the vascular system of living roses to build key components of electronic circuits.
The development demonstrates wires, digital logic, and even displays elements – fabricated inside the plants – that could develop new applications for organic electronics and new tools in plant science.
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Plants are complex organisms that rely on the transport of ionic signals and hormones to perform necessary functions. However, plants operate on a much slower time scale making interacting with and studying plants difficult. Augmenting plants with electronic functionality would make it possible to combine electric signals with the plant’s own chemical processes. Controlling and interfacing with chemical pathways in plants could pave the way to photosynthesis-based fuel cells, sensors and growth regulators, and devices that modulate the internal functions of plants.
“Previously, we had no good tools for measuring the concentration of various molecules in living plants. Now we’ll be able to influence the concentration of the various substances in the plant that regulate growth and development. Here, I see great possibilities for learning more, ” says prof. Ove Nilsson, co-author of the article.
The idea of putting electronics directly into trees for the paper industry originated in the 1990s while the LOE team at Linköping University was researching printed electronics on paper.
The team let a cut rose sit in a solution of water and a special conductive polymer called poly(3, 4-ethylenedioxythiophene) — PEDOT for short. Over the next 48 hours, the plant took up the water naturally, and the polymers with it, against which the plant’s defense mechanism reacted. The PEDOT was fixed in place as it spread, forming long chains of conductive molecules — wires built right into the plant.
These wires could carry information or power, doing for embedded devices and sensors what the plant’s pathways already do with its own resources. The resulting “e-plant” might even be able to display that data on its leaves, as the researchers also demonstrate. By suffusing the leaf with PEDOT and using voltage to manipulate the position of the polymers relative to the leaf’s surface, they created a very slow, very crude, but functional monochromatic screen.
These results are early steps to merge the diverse fields of organic electronics and plant science. The aim is to develop applications for energy, environmental sustainability, and new ways of interacting with plants. Professor Berggren envisions the potential for an entirely new field of research:
“As far as we know, there are no previously published research results regarding electronics produced in plants. No one’s done this before, ” he says.
Professor Berggren adds, “Now we can really start talking about ‘power plants’ – we can place sensors in plants and use the energy formed in the chlorophyll, produce green antennas, or produce new materials. Everything occurs naturally, and we use the plants’ own very advanced, unique systems.”