Is there no end to what nature – and more specifically, trees – can teach us?
In pursuit of the holy grail of plentiful, clean, green energy, scientists have twigged that perhaps Mother Nature knew best all along. Trees and other plants are able to derive huge quantities of energy from sunlight by just sitting there and doing nothing. Well, not quite nothing. Photosynthesis is quite a complex chemical process, but now scientists are looking to replicate it artificially, according to a New Scientist article published last week.
The key is that through photosynthesis, plants can convert sunlight into energy that can be stored and used later. If we could do the same, we might be able to overcome the problem we have with current solar power technologies, that there isn’t always enough sunshine in the places and at the times we need it. The research still has a long way to go, but potentially within a few years there could be technology using sunlight to produce hydrogen fuel from water. This could be recombined with oxygen to produce electricity. Clever stuff.
At the same time, trees have also been the inspiration for a breakthrough in solar panel design. A 13-year old schoolboy from New York noticed that oak trees have their leaves arranged in a particular, spiral pattern that maximises capture of sunlight. He copied the pattern in a design for a solar panel array, and found that it generated far more electricity than traditional designs – 50 per cent more in midwinter, when the sun is at its lowest.
Such technological solutions offer real hope for the future, and it’s great that they’re inspiring such innovation – but we still need the real thing as well. Trees continue to absorb our carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen, clean our air and water, give us food and timber, inspire great art with their beauty, and deliver countless other benefits. There are some things that Nature does that we just can’t improve on.
Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser