• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Science Note/Tree Power

Air Date: Week of August 20, 2010

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Researchers discover that maple trees generate tiny, detectable amounts of electricity. Nirja Parekh reports on tree power’s potential as low-cost, green technology.

Transcript

YOUNG: You’re listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.
Just ahead – natural history takes flight with an antique egg collection. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Nirja Parekh.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

PAREKH: The maple is already famous for its deliciously sweet syrup, but new technology could make the trees a sweet spot for energy, too. Research from the University of Washington shows big leaf maples can run an electrical circuit. The scientists found that the trees can produce a stable voltage of up to a few hundred millivolts, if they stick one electrode into the tree and one electrode into the soil.

This process sounds similar to popular kid’s science fair experiments like the potato or lemon battery. These generate an electrical current through a chemical reaction that moves electrons between electrodes from two different metals. Tree power uses a different mechanism, with electrodes of the same metal and, most importantly, it relies on a device called a boost converter. This tiny, ingenious, custom-built gadget stores the tree’s miniscule voltage, and concentrates it into a larger, usable output. But don’t run out to your backyard and try to plug in your iPod. The tree power can’t support regular electronics, but it can run low-power sensors.

These could be engineered to monitor environmental conditions and detect forest fires in the area. Researchers say they are not certain where the voltage comes from, but say it might prove useful if it could be harnessed to check on the overall health of the tree. That’s necessary as climate change impacts the places where the maple tree thrives. That’s this week's note on emerging science. I’m Nirja Parekh.

 

Links

University of Washington Press Release

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.