Today’s Scientific American 60-second science podcast was about one of my favorite trees, the mighty maple. One could discuss the maple’s majestic canopy of leaves or it’s lovely sap, but this is about the tree’s ability to make electricity.
Scientists have known for some time that trees can create small amounts of energy that can be harnessed by putting a nail in the tree, a conductor in the ground and a wire running between the two. More recently, they discovered that the electrical current source is an imbalance in PH between the tree and the surrounding soil. A year ago, MIT researchers began looking at tree powered sensors to prevent the spread of forest fires.
Massachusetts based Voltree Power is now field testing the devices with a good deal of success and help from the National Interagency Fire Center. Their first product is called the Early Wildfire Alert Network (EWAN). It consists of thousands of humidity and temperature sensor nodes distributed over remote forestland. Each node contains a wireless transceiver that enables EWAN to monitor forest conditions and instantly communicate the onset of wildfires.
As the company explains, while most of the technology they are using for the EWAN is cheap and readily available, the issue that has kept other sensor systems from being deployed has been the difficulty of constantly replacing batteries at thousands of hard-to-reach locations.
By tapping into the trees metabolic energy, that problem is solved.
Trees create a very small amount of energy, though. A maple, for example, generates just a few hundred millivolts, so for the EWAN system to work, that energy has to be collected and stored.
Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle, however, have solved that issue in a different way; by designing a nano-gadget that only need that much energy to charge.
Someday, will we be plugging our phones into the nearest Oak? Recharging our camera underneath the Weeping Willow? With fires, droughts and climate change taxing trees, it seems wrong to put one more stress on them. But if being a utility helps people protect them, it may be worth the energy it takes.
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