The first-ever plant-powered sensor has successfully transmitted to a satellite in space. The pilot service, using plants as the energy source, has been developed by Plant-e and Lacuna Space. Because the sensor doesn't need batteries, due to the internal storage in the system, it'll reduce cost, maintenance requirements and environmental impact. As long as plants continue to grow, electricity will be produced.
Combining the innovative energy harvesting technology developed by Plant-e with the extremely power efficient devices from Lacuna Space, these devices are completely self-sustainable and operate independent from sunlight, day and night.
The Internet of Things (IoT) prototype device, developed by the two companies, uses the electricity generated by living plants to transmit LoRa® messages about air humidity, soil moisture, temperature, cell voltage and electrode potential straight to Lacuna's satellite.
Future applications can be found in critical data gathering from agricultural land, rice fields or other aquatic environments without the need for any external energy sources. The pilot service is supported by the ARTES program from the European Space Agency (ESA).
Plant-e technology step by step:
- Under the influence of sunlight, plants produce organic material (sugars) and oxygen from water and CO2. This is called photosynthesis.
- This organic material is transported throughout the plant.
- Part of this organic material is not used by the plant and secreted by the roots.
- Bacteria that naturally surround the roots break down this organic material, releasing electrons and protons.
- The electrons are collected in the anode (the minus pole) of our plant battery.
- The electrons flow through the wire and can be used as electricity. A smart chip enables us to increase the voltage and, for example, to keep lights on!
- To make electrons flow, you also need a plus pole, the cathode. There they come in contact with oxygen from the air and protons from step 4 and react to water.
"At ESA we are very enthusiastic about this demonstration that combines biotechnology and space technology," said Frank Zeppenfeldt who works on future satellite communication systems in ESA. "A number of new opportunities for satellite-based Internet-of-Things will be enabled by this."
Plant-e, a start-up from Wageningen, the Netherlands, has developed a technology to harvest electrical energy from living plants and bacteria to generate carbon-negative electricity. The output generates enough energy to power LEDs and sensors in small-scale products.
"This collaboration shows how effective plant-electricity already is at its current state of development," said Plant-e CEO Marjolein Helder. "We hope this inspires others to consider plant-electricity as a serious option for powering sensors."
Lacuna, based in the UK and the Netherlands, is launching a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite system that will provide a global Internet-of-Things service. The service allows collecting data from sensors even in remote areas with little or no connectivity. At the moment Lacuna Space is offering a pilot service with one satellite in orbit, and three more satellites are awaiting launch during the next few months.
"This opens up a new era in sustainable satellite communications," said Rob Spurrett, CEO and co-founder of Lacuna Space. "There are many regions in the world that are difficult to reach making regular maintenance expensive and the use of solar power impossible. Through this technology we can help people, communities and companies in those regions to improve their lives and businesses."