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microbial fuel cell

'Pete the plant' to take selfies to help monitor its environment

Image credit: pa

Scientists have developed a system that allows plants to take “selfies” through the power of microbial fuel cells with the ultimate aim of using them to power camera traps and sensors in the wild, allowing conservationists to monitor habitats remotely.

A maidenhair fern called Pete has been selected as the first plant to use the technology, which harnesses 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.

Last year, scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) 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 came from green-energy specialists Plant E in the Netherlands.

ZSL’s conservation technology specialist Al Davies explained: “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.

“Traditional power sources have limits: batteries must be replaced, which takes time and comes at a cost, while solar panels only work if you have sufficient sunlight.

“But many plants survive in the shade and naturally move into position to maximise the potential of absorbing sunlight – meaning the potential for plant-powered energy is practically limitless.”

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.

“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,” Davies added.

Nestled among the residents of Rainforest Life, visitors can see Pete in action at London Zoo before celebrating National Selfie Day with the new selfie safari – a series of picture-perfect positions spread across the zoo.

Earlier this year a mixture of connected sensors, CCTV and biometrics were deployed in a South African game reserve to prevent poachers from decimating the already declining rhino populations.

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