Plant power: the new technology turning green roofs into living power plants

An innovative technology that uses living plants to generate energy has been launched in the Netherlands.

The technology harnesses the breakdown of organic matter produced by the plants in the soil and converts it into electricity that can be used to charge phones, power lights and cut down on a house’s reliance on external electricity sources.

Plant-e, the company behind the technology, has launched a range of products for different growing spaces, including parks, roofs and roundabouts. The first commercial installation of the product will be in Zaandam, the Netherlands, where the local government plans for the plants to provide on-the-go mobile charging for members of the public.

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The technology, which was originally developed in 2009 at Wageningen University, works by converting waste electrons and protons generated by bacteria in the soil into useable electricity.

Speaking in a company video, Dr David Strik, Plant-e founder and assistant professor at Wageningen University, explains: “In our technology the electrons flow through a power harvester to the cathode, where oxygen, protons and electrons meet to produce water. So by easily placing two carbon electrodes in the soil we can produce living green electricity.”

The system can work all year round, with the only downtime being if the soil completely freezes in very cold weather – giving it a significant advantage over other renewable technologies that only work in certain weather conditions and areas of the world.

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At present, Plant-e offers a number of products for specific spaces and functions. One, Plant-e Mobile, is a 100m² park with a mobile phone charging station.

Also available is Plant-e Hotspot, which uses the same area of park to provide wi-fi hotspots to visitors, something that could be extremely welcome in urban parks and gardens.

The company also offers Plant-e Roundabout, a version specifically provided for plant-covered roundabouts to power streetlights.

At the start of this month the company launched its Plant-e Green Electricity Roof system to businesses, and is planning to widen this to consumers soon. Suitable for any flat roof that can handle 200kg/m² of weight, the system has been trialled since 2010 on the roof of the Dutch Institute of Ecology.

The roof, which can be made from a wide variety of grasses, will require relatively low maintenance, requiring mowing just once a year. It should also be enough to put a serious dent in electricity bills – the company says 100m² will eventually be enough to cover the power needs of a typical Dutch household.

In the longer term the technology could also be used to large-scale living power plants in wetland areas such as “peat land, mangroves and rice paddies and delta areas”.

This would be using the Plant-e Tube System, a tubular system that the company is piloting from July. Plant-e hopes to have commercial versions of the system ready from 2015, so living power could soon be a major power source in many parts of the world.


Images and video courtesy of Plant-e.


Future flight: Could completely 3D printed aeroplanes be in the skies soon?

Large parts of future aeroplanes could be manufactured using 3D printer technology, although this is as long as the parts can be scaleable a leading researcher has said.

Professor of Aerospace Design at the University of Southampton, Jim Scanlan, told Factor that the future could see large parts of aeroplanes being produced using 3D printing.

He said: “There are two main issues, scale and accuracy. I can see large scale components being made. I think it will end up being processes that people use routinely.”

“Even in large UAVS most of the components are being 3D printed so we use them routinely now.”

He said Rolls Royce are also doing researching the 3D printing or turbine blades.

He says that components that are made of metal parts, with new developments, can be made at large scales.

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This follows plane manufacturer Airbus signing a deal with China’s north Western Polytechnical University (NPU) to create 3D printed plane parts for the company.

Airbus will not be the first planes to usr 3D printed parts as RAF Tornado fighter jets have flown with parts made using 3D printed technology made by BAE systems.

The parts on the fighter jets were used in test flights at the end of last year and include protective covers for cockpit radios and guards for power take-off shafts.

The university said: “This project is a test for our 3D research capability and we are confident we will deliver satisfactory results on quality and on time that will establish a solid foundation for further cooperation in this field.”

Airbus says it wants to use 3D printing to manufacture individual parts or in the future even larger airframe structures.

It says it is also working towards spare part solutions which will be able to produce parts for planes that are out of production.

3D printing technology could revolutionise the manufacturing of planes as the resulting components can potentially be up to 55% lighter than those produced using traditional methods.

Although we’re not at the stage where large-scale planes can be completely printed, the first 3D printed aircraft was created three years ago by Scanlan and other engineers at the University of Southampton. 

Now they are working on a new research project where they are trying to get to the stage where they can completely print a working aircraft- which will be as big as their largest 3D printer.

Scanlan said: “The thing we are working on is the next big step as we can now quickly design and print out the structure of an aeroplane but then we spend about 3 or 4 weeks putting it together.

“Eventually you should completely be able to print out a full areoplane with all the avionics.”

Previously the engineers made a unmanned air vehicle (UAV) which has been entirely printed and it was put together using snapping techniques meaning no tools were required.

The electric-powered aircraft, with a 2-metres wingspan, has a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, but when in cruise mode is almost silent.

The UAV showed the potential to create whole aircraft out of 3D printed materials, although this is clearly a long way from commercial aircraft which can carry passengers.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Rolls Royce are currently researching the 3D printing of turbine blades and are not printing them.


3D printer image courtesy of Joseph Morris.

Video courtesy of University of Southampton