Plants that glow could illuminate tomorrow's buildings

MIT researchers who developed light-emitting plants are now exploring how the glowing greenery could be integrated into future building designs. In their proof-of-concept demonstration, the scientist packaged luciferase, the enzyme that enables fireflies to glow, into nanoparticles that were then suspended in solution. The plants were immersed in the solution and, through high pressure, the nanoparticles entered tiny pores in the plants' leaves. The plants maintained their glow for several hours and they've since increased the duration. Now, project lead Michael Strano, professor of chemical engineering, is collaborating with MIT architecture professor Sheila Kennedy on possible future applications of the green technology. From MIT News:

“If we treat the development of the plant as we would just another light bulb, that’s the wrong way to go,” Strano (says)....

The team is evaluating a new component to the nanobiotic plants that they call light capacitor particles. The capacitor, in the form of infused nanoparticles in the plant, stores spikes in light generation and “bleeds them out over time,” Strano explains. “Normally the light created in the biochemical reaction can be bright but fades quickly over time. Capacitive particles extend the duration of the generated plant light from hours to potentially days and weeks...."

As the nanobionic plant technology has advanced, the team is also envisioning how people might interact with the plants as part of everyday life. The architectural possibilities of their light-emitting plant will be on display within a new installation, “Plant Properties, a Future Urban Development,” at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York opening May 10.

Visitors to the installation, part of the 2019 “Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” exhibition, can peek into a scaled architectural model of a New York City tenement building — which also serves as a plant incubator — to see the plants at work. The installation also demonstrates a roadmap for how an existing residential building could be adapted and transformed by design to support the natural growth of plants in a future when available energy could be very limited.

“In Plant Properties, the nanobionic plant-based infrastructure is designed to use nature’s own resources,” says Kennedy. “The building harvests and transports sunlight, collects and recycles water, and enriches soil with compost.”