Can Plants and Humidity Be Harnessed to Generate Electricity?


While the global pandemic has created an uncertain future for renewables, new discoveries are giving researchers hope for a greener tomorrow. According to a pair of recently published studies from Tel Aviv University, two naturally abundant resources—plants and humidity—may revolutionize renewable energy in the future by generating electricity.

Can Plants Generate Electricity?

One of the studies revealed that plants, which contain chlorophyll, may be able to act as natural solar panels. However, scientists are still determining how the electrical currents of plants can be “plugged into” man-made devices.

“At home, an electric current can be wired to many devices. Just plug the device into a power outlet,” Iftach Yacoby, head of The Laboratory of Renewable Energy Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Life Sciences, told CTECH. “But when you want to do it in plants, it’s about the order of nanometers. We have no idea where to plug the plugs. That’s what we did in this study.”

By using a hydrogen-producing enzyme to “sit in the socket” of  the plant cell, the researchers proved that they possess a socket for everything—even though it was nanotermically-sized. Previously just a theory, the researchers believe they will now be able to engineer any type of plant or kelp with the purpose of energy production.

Yacoby told CTECH that he wants to use plant enzymes to create ammonia, a compound traditionally used in fertilizers, that doesn’t pollute the environment. “If we can get plants to produce ammonia on their own, we don’t need to produce fertilizer at all. We can give up nitrogen fertilizer and allow plants to use nitrogen in the air without fertilizer,” he said.

While the technology is promising, it won’t be economical for at least another ten years. 

Water Vapor May One Day Charge Batteries

According to another study from Tel Aviv University, water vapor from the atmosphere may one day be harnessed to charge batteries.

Water is able to naturally generate electricity. For example, during thunderstorms, lightning forms along the various stages of cloud formations—beginning with water vapor and then transitioning to droplets and ice. 

In the 1800s, physicist Michael Faraday revealed that metal surfaces can be charged with water droplets when there is friction between them.

Knowing that water vapor can create electrical charges during molecular collisions and generate static electricity through friction, the researchers performed an experiment to identify the voltage between two separate metals when exposed to humidity. They exposed one of the metals to high relative humidity, while keeping the other metal grounded. When the air was dry, there was no charge. When they elevated the humidity to over 60%, however, it did generate a voltage. This voltage then dissipated when they lowered the humidity.

The findings contradict traditional thinking about humidity as it pertains to electricity. While water is considered an effective conductor of electricity, it has not traditionally been seen as a way to produce charges on surfaces. “However, it seems that things are different once the relative humidity exceeds a certain threshold,” Professor Colin Price told Science Daily

According to the findings, it may be possible for humid air to charge metal surfaces to roughly a single volt. 

“If a AA battery is 1.5V, there may be a practical application in the future: to develop batteries that can be charged from water vapor in the air,” Price said. “The results may be particularly important as a renewable source of energy in developing countries, where many communities still do not have access to electricity, but the humidity is constantly about 60%.”

In other words, given the abundance of humidity in warmer climates, the technology could potentially serve as an endless source of renewable energy in poorer regions that need it the most.  

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American Friends of Tel Aviv University. (9 June 2020). Water vapor in the atmosphere may be prime renewable energy source. Science Daily. 

Kabir, Omer. (8 June 2020). The sun’s rays can electrify plants into producing renewable energy, study finds. CTECH.

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