[Rushtalk] Electrical device plugs directly into trees for power

Carl Spitzer Winblows at lavabit.com
Tue Jan 15 11:30:21 MST 2013



Electrical device plugs directly into trees for power

Researchers have discovered that there's enough power in living trees to
run an electric circuit.

By Bryan NelsonThu, Sep 10 2009 at 8:32 AM EST

TREE POWER: Engineers Babak Parviz and Brian Otis demonstrate with
students how a device can be plugged into a tree for power. (Photo:
University of Washington)

In today's world of high-tech portable gadgets, iPods and cell phones,
we've become dependent upon readily accessible electric outlets to power
our devices and charge our batteries. But now researchers at the
University of Washington have discovered nature's alternative to the
power outlet: living trees. 
That's right, living trees. UW engineers Babak Parviz and Brian Otis
have invented an electrical device that can be plugged directly into any
tree for power. "As far as we know this is the first peer-reviewed paper
of someone powering something entirely by sticking electrodes into a
tree," said Parviz.
The research was based upon a breakthrough study last year out of MIT,
when scientists found that plants generate a voltage of up to 200
millivolts when one electrode is placed in a plant and the other in the
surrounding soil. Those researchers are already designing devices which
act as forest sensors powered entirely by this new method. But until
now, no one has applied these findings to the development of tree power.
It all began last summer with UW undergraduate student Carlton Himes
(also the study's co-author). He spent his summer wandering around the
woods surrounding campus, hooking nails to bigleaf maple trees and
connecting them to his voltmeter. Sure enough, the trees registered a
steady voltage of up to a few hundred millivolts. 
The next step for the UW team was to build a circuit to run on the
available tree power. Because the voltage generated by the trees can be
so small, the resulting device -- a boost converter -- was specialized
to take input voltages of as little as 20 millivolts to be stored to
produce greater output. The device's produced output voltage ended up
being 1.1 volts, which is enough to run low-power sensors. 
Of course, the researchers were quick to point out that the technology
is still a long way off from being able to power normal electronics.
"Normal electronics are not going to run on the types of voltages and
currents that we get out of a tree," Parviz said.
At the very least, these findings open the door for new generations of
electronics which might eventually be efficient enough to take advantage
of tree power. It certainly excites the imagination. Maybe in time we'll
be witness to weekend picnickers lounging in local parks with their
iPods and cell phones plugged into the surrounding foliage.
MNN homepage photo: fout4587/iStockphoto

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