Energy From Electrogenic Grass Plants
Nicholas Albertini, a physics major from Lawrence University recently came up with an idea for a new renewable energy source. They propose that a plant be developed to generate an electrical current. The most likely base organism, suitable to be genetically engineered for this purpose, seems to be prairie grass (Poaceae stipoideae). Such grasses have the physiology, growth period, growing conditions and reproductive fitness needed for this use. The base organism will need to be genetically recombined with genes from other useful organisms or synthetic genes produced in the laboratory.
A structure for creating electrical gradients must be developed in the organism. Such a structure could consist of two chambers, separated by a membranous tissue, whereby ATP powered chemical pumps create a chemical gradient between these chambers. This design would act like an electrochemical battery. This option may require the use of synthetic genes. Otherwise, this structure could consist of an electric organ composed of electrocytes, similar to that found in the electric fish (Electrophorous electicus), as suggested by Professor Michael Sussman, UW Madison, GLBRC. This could be accomplished by recombining the base organism’s DNA with genes from the electric fish.
Since this electricity generating structure would almost certainly be powered by ATP, the cells of the plant involved in photosynthesis would likely need to be engineered to contain more chloroplasts and mitochondria than usual. This might be accomplished by inserting more copies of the genes, which control the generation of these organelles within the cells, into to the recombinant plant’s DNA. The recombinant plant would need to produce much more ATP than usual and transport these molecules to the chemical pumps of the electricity producing structure.
A wire-like, current carrying structure would need to be engineered to carry the electrical current produced by the electricity generating structure. This wire-like structure would need to have an electrically conductive interior covered by an electrically resistive sheath. This could be accomplished by altering nervous tissues or other tissues, and would likely require synthetic genes. Genes for the production of latex from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) might be considered as well. Preferably, the recombinant plant would grow two such structures, each extending from the electricity producing structure into the plant’s roots. One of these must conduct current from the positive terminal of the electricity producing structure – the other from the negative. Each of these structures should extend into a special root.
These special roots would need to be engineered to seek out and grow toward such special roots from other plants by a mechanism of electrical or chemical positive tropism. Roots containing positively charged current carrying structures must seek those containing negatively charged ones. Such specialized roots would need to be engineered to make an insulated electrical connection with each other – such that negatively charged current carrying structures would connect to positively charged structures of other plants. This would create a network, in electrical series, to conduct and amplify current from many plants. An electrical tropism method would be preferred as the specialized roots could then be made to automatically connect to the terminals of an electrical grid.
Such a recombinant electrogenic grass plant network could be created by seeding alone. The seeds would sprout into plants that would self-organize into an electricity producing network. Man made terminals of an electrical grid could then be placed into the ground and given a slight charge. If the method of tropism for the current carrying roots is electrical, such roots would seek out and connect themselves to these terminals automatically. Large fields of such a recombinant plant could generate great amounts of electricity with very little human effort.
Nicholas Joseph Albertini and James Theodore Tolar Jr.
(with great suggestions from Professor Michael Sussman and Professor Steven Benner)