AMES, Iowa – Money doesn’t grow on trees, but electricity might someday.
Iowa State University scientists have built a device that mimics the branches and leaves of a cottonwood tree and generates electricity when its artificial leaves sway in the wind.
Michael McCloskey, an associate professor of genetics, development and cell biology who led the design of the device, said the concept won’t replace wind turbines, but the technology could spawn a niche market for small and visually unobtrusive machines that turn wind into electricity.
“The possible advantages here are aesthetics and its smaller scale, which may allow off-grid energy harvesting,” McCloskey said recently in his ISU laboratory. “We set out to answer the question of whether you can get useful amounts of electrical power out of something that looks like a plant. The answer is ‘possibly,’ but the idea will require further development.”
McCloskey said cell phone towers in some urban locations, such as Las Vegas, have been camouflaged as trees, complete with leaves that serve only to improve the tower’s aesthetic appeal. Tapping energy from those leaves would increase their functionality, he said.
In a paper published this month in the peer-reviewed academic journal PLOS ONE, the ISU research team delves into the world of biomimetics, or the use of artificial means to mimic natural processes. The concept has inspired new ways of approaching fields as varied as computer science, manufacturing and nanotechnology.