The realms of nature and technology are getting closer all the time, with scientists in Sweden managing to merge living plants with electronic circuits in an exciting new study. The creation of electronic plants heralds an entirely new field of research that will allow humans to benefit from the manipulation of nature's unique and highly advanced systems. Possible implications of this study include the creation of energy from chlorophyll, the production of green antennas, and the construction of entirely new materials.
Originally published in the journal 'Science Advances', this study comes from the Laboratory of Organic Electronics (LOE) at Linkoping University, under the leadership of Professor Magnus Berggren. By augmenting living plants with electronic functionality, Berggren's team were looking for new ways to combine technology and nature by merging electric signals with the typical chemical processes inside plants.
While plants are highly advanced in many ways, scientists have been unable to interact with them due to the much slower time scale at which they operate. The first work in this field began in the 1990s when the LOE team started researching electronic paper circuits. Assistant Professor Daniel Simon and Professor Xavier Crispin led these early efforts, but investors were sceptical and the project fell apart until it was rebooted in 2012.
Since its re-introduction, the project has succeeded in getting plants to produce both digital and analogue circuits. Much of this success is due to the discovery of PEDOT-S, a water soluble polymer that can be converted into a hydrogen and absorbed into plant life. Because this substance exists as a thin film-like structure, the plant can absorb water and nutrients like normal while electricity is pumped through. The team has managed to produce fully functional transistors and 3D cellulose structures that act in the same way as LCD pixels. According to Mr Gomez, "We can create electrochromatic plants in which the leaves change colour – it’s cool, but maybe not so useful.”
It's just early days, however, according to Professor Berggren, who has forecast an entirely new field of research: “Now we can really start talking about ‘power plants’ – we can place sensors in plants and use the energy formed in the chlorophyll, produce green antennas or produce new materials. Everything occurs naturally, and we use the plants’ own very advanced, unique systems... As far as we know, there are no previously published research results regarding electronics produced in plants. No one’s done this before."
Until now, projects in organic electronics have been unable to reconcile the cold and wet environments of the real world with hot and dry electrical systems. Once a major problem, this obstacle has been solved by plants as they integrate the polymer into their own biological systems and protect it from wind and weather. According to Mr Gabrielsson, “It seems as if the polymers we use had been created for their function.”
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