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Researchers are sitting on tech that could transform trees into power generators

Courtesy of Catalina Lotero
Green power.
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Cape Town, South AfricaPublished Last updated on

What if trees could provide electricity to cities? Imagine the tangle of power lines, clunky solar panels, or bird-killing wind turbines replaced by beautiful and lush green groves that double as clean energy generators.

This surrealist idyll isn’t too far-fetched, say a team of researchers from China, Italy and Japan. They’ve been working to harvest usable electricity from plants by experimenting with the “triboelectric” effect in tree foliage. The phenomenon occurs when certain materials that rub against each are pried apart, akin to how static electricity is generated. (The word “tribo” means “friction” in Greek.) As thrilling as this sounds, graduate students from Keio University in Tokyo have also paused to think through the ethical implications of such a powerful technology.

Colombian-American industrial designer Catalina Lotero is part of the multi-disciplinary team, and explained their work at the recent Design Indaba conference in Cape Town.

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