Scavenging power from trees

 Images Newsreleases 2009 September 20090904 Pid51873 Aid51869 Treepowergroup W600
Engineers have run an electrical circuit using the power of tree, seemingly the first demonstration of its kind. The University of Washington researchers determined that bigleaf maples on the school's campus generate up to few hundred millivolts. (The current is not mentioned.) So they built a low-power sensing circuit that could scavenge enough juice from a tree to operate. From UWNews:
The tree-power phenomenon is different from the popular potato or lemon experiment, in which two different metals react with the food to create an electric potential difference that causes a current to flow.

"We specifically didn't want to confuse this effect with the potato effect, so we used the same metal for both electrodes," (electrical engineering professor Babak) Parviz said.

Tree power is unlikely to replace solar power for most applications, Parviz admits. But the system could provide a low-cost option for powering tree sensors that might be used to detect environmental conditions or forest fires. The electronic output could also be used to gauge a tree's health.

"It's not exactly established where these voltages come from. But there seems to be some signaling in trees, similar to what happens in the human body but with slower speed," Parviz said. "I'm interested in applying our results as a way of investigating what the tree is doing. When you go to the doctor, the first thing that they measure is your pulse. We don't really have something similar for trees."
"Electrical circuit runs entirely off power in trees"

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  1. It’s the tree saying “ow! Quit it! Someone’s poking me with a metal probe! Two of them now, damn that hurts!”

  2. They’re asking us to pack up our trunks and leave. They think we’re a bunch of saps, stemming from how we have mis-tree-ted the planet.

  3. A tree is very tall and there is a diffrence in electrical potental between the top and the bottom. You would probably get a few hundred millivolts off of that alone. They claim to have a new unknown power source and even go out of their way to mention the “potato battery” but do not mention that there is a potential difference between almost any two points. This simple phenomenon seems far more likely than heretofore undiscovered “plant neurons”

  4. I’d just love verifiable evidence that plants feel pain. Just to see what the cruelty-free food people would do at that point…

  5. By the end of the day, someone will be marketing arboreal electrotherapy to cure whatever ails you. The ruggedness of lumberjacks will be offered as testament to its efficacy.

  6. Cicada, I shudder to think. “Would you build a house out of DEAD HUMANS? Then why would you build one out of dead wood kittens?”

  7. AFAIK, Cicada, it has been shown that plants “feel pain” in terms of sensing damage and reacting to it and expressing to their “peers” that they are in pain (think plants that send chemical messages to other plants to defend themselves from insect attacks and so on).

    That said, it’s not so much feeling pain that’s the issue, it’s having some sort of sentient or emotional understanding of pain that makes it an ethical issue. Otherwise we’d have to worry about machines with sensors.

    So without a nervous system, I’m not too worried about being guilted over my abuse of “wood kittens”.

  8. @8 Sounds suspiciously like the folks who claim that fish don’t really feel true pain when you hook ’em.

  9. Some hardcore vegans (including Steve Jobs, once upon a time) only eat fallen fruit because they don’t want to hurt the living tree.

  10. This story reminds me of the STAR TREK (VOYAGER?) episode where a stranded Federation ship was powering its engine by sucking the lifeforce from energy beings from another dimension.

  11. You should definitly digg into this :

    “Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose (November 30, 1858 – November 23, 1937) was a Bengali polymath: a physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist, and writer of science fiction.[1] He pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics, made very significant contributions to plant science…”

    In his research in plant stimuli, he showed with the help of his newly invented crescograph that plants responded to various stimuli as if they had nervous systems like that of animals. He therefore found a parallelism between animal and plant tissues. His experiments showed that plants grow faster in pleasant music and their growth is retarded in noise or harsh sound. This was experimentally verified later on[citation needed].

    His major contribution in the field of biophysics was the demonstration of the electrical nature of the conduction of various stimuli (wounds, chemical agents) in plants, which were earlier thought to be of a chemical nature. These claims were experimentally proved by Wildon et al. (Nature, 1992, 360, 62–65). He also studied for the first time action of microwaves in plant tissues and corresponding changes in the cell membrane potential, mechanism of effect of seasons in plants, effect of chemical inhibitor on plant stimuli, effect of temperature etc. He claimed that plants can “feel pain, understand affection etc.,” from the analysis of the nature of variation of the cell membrane potential of plants, under different circumstances.
    (Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagadish_Chandra_Bose)

  12. Some hardcore vegans

    Never, never start a joke this way: I was laughing even before the “fallen fruit” punchline!

  13. The wikipedia page for “Galvanic Cell” says:

    “A cell can also be formed if the same metal is exposed to two different concentrations of electrolyte.”

    I saw that they used the same metal to prevent the “potato effect”, but do that doesn’t completely eliminate galvanic effect as a possible source of current does it? Especially for the intensity that they’re reporting.

    @3 I totally agree that this is probably not some heretofore undiscovered nervous system, but I don’t actually get how the height of the tree gets involved.

  14. Going back to widely known electrical phenomena, a wire passing perpendicularly through a magnetic field, I recently posited that very small [power requirement] drifting sensors could use the earth’s magnetic field, and an ocean current passing perpendicularly to the earth’s field to provide power for the object [either on the level or toward the earth’s center].
    Space power supplies have already been designed to use these fields.
    And in the ocean, nuclear subs keep their detectability low by avoid such cross motions of their hull to the earth’s field.

  15. Going back to widely known electrical phenomena, a wire passing perpendicularly through a magnetic field, I recently posited that very small [power requirement] drifting sensors could use the earth’s magnetic field, and an ocean salt water current passing perpendicularly to the earth’s field to provide power for the object [either on the level or toward the earth’s center]
    Space power supplies have already been designed to use these fields.
    An in the ocean, nuclear subs keep their detectability low by avoiding such cross motions of their hull to the earth’s field.

  16. Ah, science by press release.
    I hate having to second-guess what is going on by interpreting the intention of the science writer. I can avoid the issue in the astronomy and physics world, since everyone there now offers preprints on arxiv.org.
    The first thing I thought of, since the press release fails to mention any particular hypothesis as to why the trees produce the voltage, is that there is plenty of RF around in an urban environment (like 155mV/m at UW from KIXI AM).

  17. Hasn’t anyone ever heard of Nathan Stubblefield? In addition to his demonstration of wireless communication in 1908(prior to Marconi’s research efforts,) designed arc-lamps which were powered via “heavy wires leading from the roots of trees.”

  18. @18- You mean the people who consider there to be no difference between human suffering and that of, say, chickens?

  19. Anon@15

    Actually, prior to General Squier, there were several reports of scientists obtaining power from trees by removing two segments of the tree, allowing them to dehydrate, then with the addition of a small amount of energy in the form of friction, a sustained exothermic reaction was obtained, significantly greater than the energy invested in the form of friction.

  20. Oh wow, Electrical Engineers. I guess that explains it. (Chemical physicist here)

    “A study last year from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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.”

    No shit. One is a cellular environment with a carefully controlled electrolytic composition (or you die), the other one is with “whatever’s in the ground”. There WILL be a potential difference because of that, and you won’t need two different electrodes to get a current.

    Maybe they should’ve noted that his car battery has two electrodes made out of the same material.

  21. Another good way to get energy from trees is to burn it. Use the heat to convert water into steam, and use the pressure from that to power awesome looking victorian era type gadgets!

  22. You can easily get current from two electrodes of same metallic composition if the solution or electrolytic has different concentrations OR is in motion.

    This has been known since I was at high school (1976) and it was far from being news then. Its been known as long as battery research has been carried out.

  23. Has anyone tried pounding similar electrodes into people’s heads and running similar circuits from the awesome energy of human thought?

    I’m too busy to volunteer as an experimental subject, myself, but I think someone should step forward.

  24. Couldn’t one attach a winch to a tree via a large set of reduction gears, so the tree, moving slowly with immense force, would turn a generator?

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