Conservationists working at the London Zoo are busy cultivating Pete, a maidenhair fern that will hopefully be able to take photos that can help scientists monitor remote areas of rainforests all over the world.
The current trial is hoping to develop a way to use plants that can generate enough electricity to power equipment used by conservationists to monitor remote habitats all over the world, such as tropical rainforests.
The study is being led by scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), conservation technology unit. The ZSL has partnered with the synthetic biology research company OpenPlant, the conservation technology group Arribada Initiative and Cambridge University. The technology powering Pete is being designed with the help of green energy company Plant-e.
“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,” said Al Davies, conservation technology specialist working for ZSL.
“Plugging into 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.” (Related: The grass is always greener (and the soil is healthier) on the side of conservation agriculture.)
Pete was set up in ZSL London Zoo’s Rainforest Life exhibit. While the technology was being set up, Pete spent the whole summer of 2019 growing. In October 2019, the fern successfully took a picture after ZSL scientists installed its microbial fuel cells. It has since been taking pictures “at an astonishing rate.” According to the ZSL team, Pete can capture one photo every 20 seconds.
Davies says Pete has been “working so well” and that the fern has even taken photos of several ZSL staff.
Davies and the other scientists at ZSL are very excited about the potential for the technology powering Pete. If plants in remote habitats all over the world could be used to generate small amounts of electricity, people would be able to – quite literally – “plug in to nature” to help conservationists.
Furthermore, Davies mentions that many greener power sources are still limited in their ability to generate electricity. Batteries need to be replaced regularly and solar panels are expensive and require a lot of sunlight.
However, Davies argues that conservationists should rely on plants, as they can survive in the shade and they naturally move into a position that maximizes their sunlight exposure. This means that the potential of plant-powered energy “is pretty much limitless.”
The ZSL scientists are still working to refine the technology. As Pete was growing, it used to take two weeks before the fern could generate enough electricity to capture one photo. Fortunately, its energy output has grown.
Once the ZSL scientists are able to refine the technology even further, they plan to set up a second trial of the technology in the wild. If this trial is successful, then the technology will be used first to monitor remote areas of the Amazon rainforest within the western South American country of Peru.
In the meantime, Davies and the ZSL team are keeping their eyes on Pete, and hoping that visitors to the London Zoo’s Rainforest Life exhibit would say some kind words to the plucky plant to help it grow.