Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Trees, Save Yourselves

A new system makes clever use of bioenergy
December 22, 2008

What began as a study of how trees generate electricity may end up protecting forests from fires.

For decades, scientists have known that trees and their surrounding soil produce a small amount of electricity, but the reason for the phenomenon has been the subject of much debate. To put that debate to rest, Christopher Love, a senior chemistry major at MIT, worked with Shuguang Zhang, associate director of MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, and Andreas Mershin, a postdoctoral associate at the center, to test the various theories. Their results, published recently in the journal Public Library of Science One, support an explanation not previously considered: that the difference in pH levels between a tree and the surrounding soil is what allows the tree to produce electricity. “If there is a difference in pH between the tree and the soil, then you will observe a voltage from that difference by putting same-metal electrodes in each,” explains Love.

Armed with this information, Voltree Power in Canton, MA, is working to use that electricity to help predict forest fires.

Today, the U.S. Forest Service gets environmental information from solar-powered units located in forest clearings, says Love. The system Voltree is producing will send data from within the forest, providing more accurate details about conditions.

Voltree, in which Love and Mershin have a financial interest, will use a bioenergy harvester to collect energy from the tree, a sensor to gauge temperature and humidity, and a wireless mesh network to transmit the data. The sensing and harvesting units can be installed easily and then left alone: the sensors’ batteries will be recharged by the electricity the trees produce. “The tree energy that we’re getting is very small,” says Love. “But that’s better than no energy.”

Starting this spring, Voltree will test its device in a 10-acre area provided by the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, ID. Future applications, Love says, could include agricultural monitoring as well as radiation detection along the U.S. borders, to prevent the smuggling of radioactive goods.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

AGI is just chatter for now concept
AGI is just chatter for now concept

The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it

Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.