The project yielded plants that could glow up to 3.5 hours, though so dimly they would not qualify as useful light sources for reading or other activities. The researchers believe they can boost the light emitted, as well as the duration of light, by further optimizing the concentration and release rates of the different components. In the mix, the CdSe nanocrystals were proven to shift the chemiluminescent emission to 760nm enabling near-infrared (nIR) signalling.
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” says Michael Strano, senior author of the study.
But getting there would mean engineering plants so they could produce themselves the necessary chemicals. Previous efforts to create light-emitting plants have relied on genetically engineering plants to express the gene for luciferase, but this is a laborious process that yields extremely dim light. Another alternative would be to spray the plants with a mist of the pre-engineered nanoparticles, if that could work to turn large trees into street luminaires.
“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant,” Strano says. “Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”