Most people already understand what makes plants such an important part of the environment — by absorbing light and carbon, they’re able to photosynthesize, releasing fresh oxygen into the atmosphere to keep animal life on Earth breathing. What you may not realize is that while plants serve a vitally important function, the process itself actually isn’t very efficient. Not only do most plants reflect green light rather than absorbing it, but they’re only able to use about 10% of the sunshine they receive. What else could we do with all that extra energy? A group of chemical engineers and biochemists at MIT is trying to answer that question by creating super-powered bionic plants that can use photosynthesis to harness solar energy, detect airborne pollutants, and more.
By embedding carbon nanotubes in the chloroplasts of the plants, researchers found they were able to create “artificial antennae” to help the plants capture wavelengths of light they normally don’t absorb, including ultraviolet and near-infrared light.
The team was able to insert the nanoparticles simply by applying a solution to the underside of the leaves of the Arabidopsis thaliana plant. The nanotubes penetrated the plants’ chloroplasts within seconds without damaging the leaves or killing the plant. After the tubes were absorbed, scientists found that the plants were able to capture about 30% more energy from the sunlight. Even better, when the plants were treated with nanotubes that could detect the pollutant nitric oxide, the plants were transformed into living sensors, and could detect molecules of the chemical at extremely low concentrations.
The full report has been published in the journal Nature Materials.