Cambridge, MA– At some point in the near future, we may be using plants as sustainable night lights. Researchers at MIT have infused plants with nanoparticles that convert the plant’s stored energy into light. The plants’ glow is bright enough to allow you to read a book in the dark.

This nanobiotechnology was developed in 2017, and since then enhancements have been made to improve the duration and intensity of the plants’ glow. With these enhancements, MIT’s research on glowing nanobionic plants could present a sustainable option for low lighting in green buildings. That’s the hope for a collaboration between two MIT professors, one of architecture and the other of chemical engineering.

Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, says of the project: “The transformation makes virtually any plant a sustainable, potentially revolutionary technology. It promises lighting independent of an electrical grid, with ‘batteries’ you never need to charge, and power lines that you never need to lay.”

Strano and his team collaborated with Sheila Kennedy, a professor of architecture at MIT who specializes in clean energy infrastructure. “As a design team, we considered some fundamental questions, such as how to understand and express the idea of plant lighting as a living, biological technology and how to invite the public to imagine this new future with plants,” said Kennedy.

The research partners received a grant in 2017 to continue the project. The Amar G. Bose Research Grant for MIT faculty supports “...unconventional, ahead-of-the-curve, and often interdisciplinary research endeavors that are unlikely to be funded through traditional avenues, yet have the potential to lead to big breakthroughs.”

The architectural elements of the light-producing plants are now on display at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. “Plant Properties, a Future Urban Development” opened on May 10 as part of the museum’s larger exhibit, “Nature–Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial.”

Installing the exhibition allowed Strano and Kennedy a real-world opportunity to explore the plants’ lighting capabilities by building the design in an existing space. Strano commented that they “learned a lot about the care of plants. It’s one thing to make a laboratory demonstration, but it’s another entirely to make 33 continuous weeks of a public demonstration.”

Image credit: Strano Research Group
Description: Glowing nanobionic watercress illuminates the book “Paradise Lost.”