We get our energy from a variety of sources, some more environmentally harmful than others. There’s fossil fuels, natural gas, hydropower, geothermal, solar power, wind power, biomass, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some other commonly used forms of energy production. Energy is what keeps not only machines and technology running, it’s what keeps us living beings alive too. All that food we eat is broken down into little bits and pieces that are used for energy, or something to that effect. I’m not well-versed on the whole chemical process of the production of energy (something to do with ATPs if I remember correctly from high school), but from the issue of providing food for the entire population (energy for people), to reducing the environmental impacts of our energy production (energy for society), the issue of where and how we get our energy to run a modern lifestyle is a main concern for many.
One energy source that I came across caught my attention: trees. Yes, trees. Apparently trees produce energy while maintaining a PH balance between itself and the soil surrounding it (again, another chemistry-heavy topic), and scientists have discovered ways of utilizing the energy produced by the trees to power electrical devices – in a sense, ‘plugging into the trees.’ Granted, the energy that is produced by the PH balance is minimal (it’s less than a AA battery) but scientists are confident that a combination of energy storage technologies will allow the tree to produce larger amounts of energy (a voltage boost converter stores the energy produced by the tree and releases the built up energy in periodical intervals). More information can be found here.
“Now wait just a minute!” you might be saying right now, “isn’t leeching power from a tree harmful to it?” And yes, a researcher in the Netherlands by the name of Niek van’t Wout has determined that large exposure to electromagnetic signals (such as from phone base stations) actually have a harmful effect on the cells of a tree (it’s basically radiation for a tree). Although a tree would need to undergo quite a bit of long term exposure before cell harm, but the danger is there.
But if we can figure out some way to protect the trees from the harmful electromagnetic signals, we may have just found a reliable source of energy that is deeply linked to the well-being of the environment. I am a big supporter for linking our crucial systems to the environment. While some may think of it as a flaw to connect essential systems to something natural (and therefore, capable of contracting diseases and dying), I see it as an incentive for us to protect the environment in order to protect ourselves. Also, by ensuring the health of the trees, we are in a sense entering a symbiotic cycle with the trees (well, even more than we already are). Trees give us energy, and we protect the trees. Just imagine it: we could have whole forests that are all plugged into an electrical grid providing power, now that’s an interesting mental image.
Right now, developers are utilizing the tree metabolic harvesting to power small devices that can monitor the health of the tree for research (basically, the tree powers a device that monitors itself). A company called Voltree Power also has developed tree-powered circuitry that powers a forest monitoring system made up of sensors. For now, products that are powered by trees are only used due to the fact that there are no easily accessible electrical sources nearby (you don’t find outlets in the middle of large forests), but Theresa Harmanen, a designer, has come up with the ALMA tree lamp, a lamp that plugs directly into the tree to access its power. Ideally, these lamps would be inserted in urban trees as a way to provide street lighting. According to Harmanen, these products would not harm the tree, and the lamps would last just as long as the tree would. While the idea is only at the conceptual stages, I’d be interested in seeing how it progresses, as well as how all other tree-based energy technologies progress.
While I’m not super interested in electricity and chemistry (but I respect those who are, energy production/efficiency is big problem to tackle), I would definitely like to find ways in which I could help contribute to this kind of research. There’s a good chance that this power source, like so many renewable sources – won’t be practical for wide-scale implementation, but I think it’s worth a shot. Perhaps I’m just too caught up with the idea of replacing the image of bundles of wires, factories and metal framework when I think of the “electrical grid” with the image of wide expanses of trees (the “environmental grid”). Electricity seems like such a man-made concept it’s easy to forget that electricity is actually a natural phenomenon with various examples found in nature (lightning, magnetism, electric eels, ect.).