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How To Generate Electricity From Plants

Updated on July 31, 2015
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Mario Buildreps is a graduate engineer. Become aware of topics in a way you have never heard before.

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An Innovative Idea

Generating electricity from plants is not entirely new. But the concept of the company Plant-e to build a working concept into a relative simple consumer product is entirely new.

Plant-e patented this idea in 2007, that was initially developed by the Agricultural University of Wageningen in the Netherlands. The Agricultural University of Wageningen belongs to one of the most innovative agricultural universities in the world.

The basic principle is that roots of plants secrete organic material which is broken down by bacteria. During this decomposition process the bacteria secrete protons and electrons. The electrical power is then created by conducting the electrons between two plates - the anode and cathode.

There are among other several types of plants suitable for this purpose:

  • Musa Bananarama (the banana tree)
  • Chlorophytum Bonnie (anthericum)
  • Spathiphyllum (peace lily or spathe flower)

These plants are suitable because they're able to withstand soaked soil for an extensive period of time. Furthermore are plants that don't develop flower formations more suitable, for the amount of organic secretion is larger when plants don't grow flowers.

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Specification Solar Power Versus Plant-e Concept

Item
Solar Panels
Plant-e
Power output
200 W/m2 (= 240 W/yd2)
2.5 W/m2 (= 3 W/yd2)
Costs
$300/m2 (=$360/yd2)
$3/m2 (=$3.6/yd2)*
Costs per Watt
$1.5/W
$1.2/W
*DIY version

The Principle of Off Grid Energy

To generate with solar power enough energy, for example for your washing machine, without usage of the net, you need enough square meters to supply the demanded capacity. And a battery pack to flatten the peaks and dips when you're off the grid.

A washing machine for example, requires an average power of around 1000 W, which goes in peaks and dips. When the machine is heating, it requires (peak) around 2500 W. When the machine is only turning it consumes (dip) around 500 W. The peaks and dips have to be flattened by a battery pack that is able to supply at least 2500 W. The battery pack must be designed for the maximum output.

When you're on the grid, the surplus of energy can be delivered (back) to the grid, in return for a compensation per KWh. When you've not enough solar power, because of cloudy weather to use your washing machine, you're then able to draw the required power from the grid.

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How Many Plants Do I Need For My New Off Grid Home?

You will need many square meters to generate enough power for your off grid home. But square meters in the yard are much easier to create by yourself than square meters of solar panels. That's a major difference.

Solar panels are impossible to build by yourself. They must be bought from a factory. The plant-e principle is relatively simple, which makes it possible to build this generator by yourself. That's also a major difference! The only thing you need is dedication and perseverance.

For an off grid situation, the Plant-e generator has to generate an average power of around 1000W. This energy first goes to the battery pack, and then to the outlets.

It will take at least 400 yd2 to generate 1000 W. This means that if you plant 500 yd2 you're able to generate totally independent an abundant amount of energy, to supply your off grid home, just from plants. You might even deliver energy to your neighbours for barter.

How to Arrange a Matrix

When you put two copper wires in the wet soil like on the pictures you'll witness a direct result - a low voltage. The voltage of around 0.4V is low, much too low to use as a serious application. The lowest serious applications start around 5V such as USB.

There are two ways to increase voltage.

  • By using a boost converter.
  • By chaining the plants in a serial array, like batteries. For this, the plants have to be grown in separate electrically isolated boxes.

Increasing the current, that is necessary to boost the total power output, is done by connecting plant boxes parallel.

Creating a voltage of for example 220V, has to be done by chaining around 550 plants. When every plant box takes around 2 inches, you'll need a chain of around 23 yards.

By adding many of these rows parallel to this chain, you'll increase the current and not increase voltage. In this way you can arrange your own generator.

You will probably have to experiment to create the best situation for yourself, because every plant, and every region, has other output specifications. The sun intensity, the temperature, and the climate are the major ingredients of how much the plant matrix will generate.

A matrix of 23 x 23 yards is in most cases powerful enough to meet in all your electricity needs. That are around 30,000 plants. For sure that's a lot of plants, but you're fully self sustaining.

Irrigation of the Plant Matrix

Don't forget that the plants that generate your electricity must be kept moisty enough. This could mean that the plant matrix is best isolated from the surrounding soil, and is irrigated from a large water tank or a pond.

Irrigation of 30,000 plants will require a large amount of water. Therefore it might be beneficial to install the boxes just above ground water level. Only when the ground water level is decreasing, then irrigation from a nearby pond or tank is required.

The plants don't require constant irrigation. Depending on the climate, the type of plant box construction, and the type of plants, it is expected that watering 2 times per day is sufficient.

Polytunnels can be a good solution when your climate is not warm enough. This will also reduce the amount of vaporization, and keep therefore the soil wetter.

The Plant-e Mobile is a modular principle.
The Plant-e Mobile is a modular principle. | Source

Plant-e Products Are Still Too Expensive

The prices of the standard products are currently much too high to be considered as interesting for a large off grid consumer market.

For example the DIY-box for education (or as a presents) costs currently €742,98 ex. VAT and shipping. For the US this will be at least $1250. That is expensive, but for this money you have the most awesome newest green gadget there is.

This package is just new on the market since October this year. I expect the price will drop soon with increasing success.

The prices of these products are still much too high for serious applications. The DIY version is therefore (currently) the best solution.

Latest Developments

Plant-e is constantly busy to develop newer and better techniques to incorporate them in nature with as less disturbance as possible.

The latest innovation is the Plant-e Tube System, which is a tubular system based on the existing Plant-e technology. The system is developed for larger scale electricity generation by using living plants that are more adapted to a wet habitat such as peat land, mangroves and rice paddies.

This way of generating electricity looks very promising for a real green future, especially for living in nature off grid and for the third world countries.


© 2014 by Buildreps

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      As an old science teacher, I already knew of this, but I'm still fascinated by it.....thanks for raising awareness about this.

    • Buildreps profile image
      Author

      Buildreps 2 years ago from Europe

      Thanks for dropping by, Bill! This seems to be a very promising innovation here in the Netherlands. I just recently became involved and immediately catched my interest. I had no idea before that plants were able to generate so much electricity.

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 2 years ago from USA

      Interesting concept.

      I was wondering in matter of electricity production, few years ago I saw on tv two Australians that conceptualized a generator according to Tesla's coil what do you think will generate more energy the plant-e or a Tesla coil adaptation?

    • Buildreps profile image
      Author

      Buildreps 2 years ago from Europe

      Thanks for your comment, maxoxam41. The Tesla coil is a very powerful concept that can generate an awful amount of energy on a small area, much more than plant-e concept is able to. On the other hand is the plant-e concept nice because it's organic, natural and easier to build yourself.

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