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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science Note/Tree Power

Air Date: Week of

Researchers discover that maple trees generate small, detectable amounts of electricity. Nirja Parekh reports on how tree power is the newest low-cost, green technology.



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.



University of Washington Press Release


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