MIT researchers create plants that glow

Imagine a highway lined with trees that glow as opposed to street lamps, or using the plant on your nightstand as a reading light. A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they’ve figured out a way to make those things happen.

The team published a paper in the journal Nano Letters on Nov. 17 describing the process by which they embed plants with nanoparticles that take energy stored by photosynthesis and turn it into light, said Michael Strano, a chemical engineering professor at MIT and the paper’s senior author.

“The vision is a desk lamp that you never have to plug in,” he said. “It can provide light powered by the plant’s own photosynthesis.”

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The researchers applied three types of nanoparticles to a plant’s leaf using a new technique invented in Strano’s laboratory, he said. The nanoparticles enter the leaf through the plant’s stomata, or microscopic pores, which Strano has already used to in order to get plants to predict droughts.

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Once inside, they can access the energy stored in chemicals in the plant and convert it into light, making the whole plant glow, Strano said.

“The energy powering the light is coming from the plant itself,” he said.

At the start of the project, the plants only glowed for about 45 minutes, but now they produce a dim light for three and a half hours, MIT said in a statement Wednesday.

Strano said increasing that duration is well within the realm of possibility.

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“We think we can ultimately make it so the plant can glow for the entirety of its lifetime,” he said.

“There’s an open question as to how bright a plant can get,” he said, but with enough low-intensity plant lights, plants and shrubs could easily illuminate streets in the foreseeable future.

The particles used to get the plants to glow are the same particles used in most medicines, so they’re FDA-approved and safe for humans, although Strano emphasized the fact that he and his team do no intend for the plant-lights to be consumed.

They are, however, more eco-friendly than lamps made of plastic, have the power to repair themselves, and are carbon-negative, meaning that they’re a viable source for renewable light energy.

“They have a number of other advantages that conventional lamps don’t have,” he said. “Given the problems we have today, we really have to think about that as a benefit.”

Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.