Work has begun on the scientific study at London Zoo to develop a way of using plants to power camera traps and sensors in the wild so that wildlife experts can monitor habitats such as tropical forests from afar.
The trial will use fuel cells that harness the energy of naturally occurring bacteria in the soil, fed by nutrients plants put into the earth as they grow, to generate enough electricity to power conservation equipment.
If successful, it could provide an alternative to traditional batteries which need replacing or solar panels which require sufficient light to work, unlike plants which can survive in the shade and move into position to maximise the potential sunlight.
It has the potential to monitor inhospitable and remote locations for key data such as temperature, humidity and plant growth, to help experts understand threats such as climate change and habitat loss, the team behind the trial said.
People visiting the zoo are being encouraged to cheer on Pete, described as a maidenhair fern with delicate leaves and shiny stalks, as he grows in strength in the Rainforest Life exhibit towards the moment when he can take a photograph – of himself.
Scientists in the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) conservation tech unit partnered with Open Plant, Cambridge University and the Arribada Initiative to run a competition to design a fuel cell that could be powered by plants.
The winning design for the technology came from green energy specialists Plant E in the Netherlands.
ZSL’s conservation technology specialist Al Davies said: “As plants grow, they naturally deposit biomatter into the soil they’re planted in, which bacteria in the soil feeds on – this creates energy that can be harnessed by fuel cells and used to power a wide range of conservation tools.
“Plugging in to plants unlocks the potential to deploy sensors, monitoring platforms, camera traps, or other electronics that require power and must operate for extended periods of time – all remotely and without interference.
“We’re excited about the potential for this new technology – If we could harness plants to help generate small amounts of electricity, we could quite literally plug in to nature to help protect the world’s wildlife.
“In the meantime, since it’s been suggested that talking to plants helps them grow, we’d love people to visit and help cheer on our plucky plant, Pete.”