Lighting the streets with luminous trees – is it realistic?

American scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have grown trees that emit a bright light for several years. Today we’re going to talk about this exciting topic, and we thank Dustin Bratten, an essay helper, and urbanist, for helping us write this article. Luminous plants are expected to appear on city streets and will begin to be used as a replacement for streetlights in the future. Thanks to this approach, it will be possible to save a lot of electricity, for which nature will be very grateful to us because the current power plants enormously pollute the air. In 2017, the first generation of such plants appeared – the leaves of the common rule were treated with luciferase, which gives luminous properties to fireflies. The leaves emit light, but their brightness left much to be desired. Last year, engineers increased the intensity of the glow so much that you could read a book under the plants’ light. Everything seems to be moving towards a future where trees will light streets.

The history of luminous trees

According to Professor Michael Strano, their idea is to create a plant that absorbs light, stores it, and gradually radiates it into the surrounding space. The first plant of its kind was created in 2017, and since then, the technology has constantly been improving.

The first generation of luminous plants

Five years ago, scientists realized that to impart luminous properties, luciferase, which endows fireflies with the ability to luminesce, could be injected inside plant leaves. In the first study, particles of the substance, several hundred nanometers in diameter, were injected into the watercress leaves. They accumulated in a spongy layer called the mesophyll. As expected, the luciferase absorbed photons of light, but the brightness of the radiation was not even enough to read a book. Scientists had to work to improve the technology.

There is an interesting fact: some insects can glow in the dark, but plants are not capable of it. But scientists already know how to breed glowing potato and tomato varieties – their emission is very weak because it is only needed to signal stress.

The second generation of luminous plants

The second generation of luminous plants was demonstrated in 2021. This time scientists replaced luciferase with another substance – strontium aluminate. The main advantage of the new substance is that it emits light with much greater intensity than luciferase. Both sunlight and light from an LED lamp are suitable for “recharging” it. In the experiment, scientists shined the light on the plant’s leaves for 10 seconds – enough to keep the plant lit up for an hour. In total, after hundreds of recharge cycles, the plant was able to work for a full two weeks. Not a bad result, but the scientists were not satisfied.

The third generation of luminous plants

The third generation of plants for space illumination is under development. It is known that a mixture of luciferase and strontium aluminate will be introduced into their leaves – it is hoped that the two substances will make the plants as bright as possible. But scientists need to ensure that such a compound won’t destroy the plant’s structure. If they notice a destructive effect, they will have to look for a new compound. Currently, experiments are only being conducted on small plants, but they will probably come to trees in the future.

Pros and cons of street lighting

Street lighting in cities plays a significant role. Firstly, thanks to lights, pedestrians and drivers of cars can see each other well – reducing the number of accidents. Second, fewer crimes are committed in well-lit places. After all, if you agree to look at the news about murders, they are often committed in dark parks, yards without lights, and other creepy places. Violent crimes are usually committed in poorly lit places.

But street lighting also has its downsides. The main one is that many streetlights require a lot of energy, but the streets are often empty, and the electricity is wasted. In addition, some lights are very bright and sometimes blind motorists driving on the roads – such cases are rare, but still occur. And third, do not forget about light pollution, which can harm human and animal health, especially fish.

Lighting the streets with trees

Now let’s imagine that trees instead of tall lampposts light streets. If American scientists can implement their idea, removing all streetlights in parks would be possible. The diffused light will not shine to the eyes, but its intensity will be enough to see people and the road. The lack of streetlights will save a lot of energy. Electricity in the parks will be necessary only for a short turn on the LED lamps – after their 10-second glow, the trees will be able to illuminate the space for several hours.

Unfortunately, at this point, it is impossible to say exactly when the glowing trees will appear on the streets of cities. If the third generation of plants is powerful enough, they may become part of populated areas in the coming decades. But before that, we will need to know the answers to many questions. For example, it is not clear what will be done with the trees in two weeks when they stop shining. They will likely be injected with a mixture of fluorescent substances, but how long will the plants be able to withstand the presence of foreign particles in the leaves? There are a lot of questions and no answers at this point. We’re waiting for the third generation, and after that, we’ll have to wait for trials. What do you think about street lighting with trees? Is the idea of scientists realistic, or is it just another project doomed to fail?

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