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Design and Nature Reimagined: Can we create a living battery?

Every leaf that you see on a plant or tree is a tiny, living, solar battery. For years I've wondered why we haven't invested more in figuring out solar storage by mimicking leaves.

I imagine our built environment acting as plants, receiving energy from photosynthetic panels and batteries that generate their own energy.

I've been thinking about this possibility for years, and know I'm not the only one.

Why it's hard to re-create photosynthesis

The concept seems so straightforward. We are surrounded by a world where leaves take in light and carbon dioxide, process it into carbohydrates to feed the tree, and release oxygen back into the air. Plants, trees, lichens, all use photosynthesis to live. They are living batteries who create their own energy.

So why haven't we harnessed this?

Because photosynthesis is a biological process that's completed by the organism, it's complex and involves chemicals that can degrade and are unstable. That makes it difficult for scientists to recreate in human-made tools.

Researchers at Technical University in Munich is attempting to do just this. Researchers working on the project said

"Nature needs carbon dioxide and water for photosynthesis,” says Fischer. The nanomaterial developed by the researchers imitates the properties of the enzymes involved in photosynthesis."

This work has improved the energy yielded from light, and they're hoping that the successes of this research may eventually lead to a future where batteries are charged by sunlight.

Can we harness photosynthesis for energy?

Elena Mitro, an architect and designer is trying to do just that. She calls it Green Spark. Using plants growing in a ceramic pot, she was able to extract electrical energy from the plant. Her set up was enough to charge two smartphones simultaneously. I love this because it's a design installation, and while not universally applicable yet, it shows the possibility of harnessing what already exists to create a distributed electrical network.

Reading through research like this makes me imagine buildings covered in plants, creating enough energy to run some of the building systems. Or light poles that have been reimagined as moss poles, charging themselves just as effectively as solar panels.

There is also similar research harnessing photosynthesis and producing electricity from plants in the water. Using cyanobacteria, green algae, seaweed, and plants, scientists are interlacing "electrodes and electron mediators to yield bio-photoelectrochemical cells (BPECs) that transform light energy into electrical power."

Even more exciting, is that these three research projects aren't the only ones in process. It seems like researchers and designers around the world are interested in exploring how photosynthesis could be another tool in our toolbox for providing renewable energy.

Pink flowering plants potted in white ceramic pots hang from a circular frame. The bottom of the pots are connected to wires that pull electricity from the energy in photosynthesis.

Elena Mitro's Green Spark installation. Photo courtesy of AWRD. (

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