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MIT Carbon Nanotubes Turn Plants Into Solar Energy Harvesting Photonic Sensors

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bionic-plant1-537x356Do yo think it is possible to give the field of solar power generation a spin that has not been seen or heard of before? Oh yes, it is, and a team of scientists from the MIT did exactly that.

The decided, instead of focusing on improving existing solar cells, to look somewhere completely unexpected- the surrounding flora. Basing their research on the fact that plants use up only 10% of the energy that hits them, the team decided that they can not let all this energy to go to waste, and found a way to give a boost to the process of photosynthesis.

The study mainly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, was published in the journal Nature Materials earlier this week. In the article, the authors present a new type of plants that they developed, the so-called super-powered bionic plants, which not only photosynthesize, but also can harness solar energy and detect atmospheric pollutants. To achieve this, all it took was to insert carbon nanotubes in the chloroplasts.

For the purpose, the team used the leaves of Arabidopsis thaliana plant. They applied a special solution onto the surface, which prevented damage of the leaves when the nanotubes were inserted. They then observed that the plants form “artificial antennae“, which help the capturing of ultraviolet and near-infrared light,  wavelengths that have never been absorbed by plants before.

As a result, the plants absorbed 30% more light than they do without the addition of nanotubes. In addition to this, the scientists also observed that the leaves turned into photonic chemical sensors for atmospheric pollutants, or nitric oxide to be more precise, and allowed the detection of very small concentrations of it.

The team is convinced that this technology could prove extremely useful in future development of materials that can harness solar energy and at the same time detect a wide variety of biochemicals.

Image (c) MIT

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