Top 5 Plants that Inspire New Technology

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Red Algae for Biofuel

There’s a lot of hype out there about new technologies that will “change everything”. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and “smell the roses”. In that spirit, here are five plants with surprising super powers – they have provided a boost to technological innovation or invention, often with a green lining.

Algae and Biofuel

If you keep track of the news, algae should already be on your radar. Depending on your favorite species, algae can be eaten, burned for heat, or used to produce hydrogen, methane, biodiesel, or plain old fertilizer. Algae is so prolific, and comes in so many varieties, that it’s actually a chore to isolate your preferred species for cultivation out of a water sample from the wild. The best part is that algae soaks up the sun and lots of CO2 to work it’s magic. That’s two forms of renewable energy used to produce fuels or foods (sushi anyone?) in high demand.

An algaculture biodiesel plant is already in operation today, happily churning out 4.4 million gallons of algal oil per year. That may not sound like a lot, but as the first operational algae oil factory, you can bet they’ll make enough money to build bigger. Other companies are also in the game to make algae the biggest thing since oil. As a renewable source of fuel, algae is becoming one of many solutions to our energy problems. Not too shabby for pond scum. Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution!

Guayule and Latex

rubber plantation or biofuel?Gua-what? Guayule is a desert plant native to North America. One company, Yulex Corp., realized that this little plant has a lot to offer. The first super-power is that Guayule can produce rubber. Most natural rubber is produced from one breed of rubber tree, which leaves the crop at risk from disease.

Latex made from guayule performs better than traditional latex, and it’s allergy-free. Softer, stretchier, stronger, and an effective barrier – Yulex latex products are already on the market and in high demand from the medical, scientific and contraceptive sectors. Keep your eyes peeled. Latex gloves might not seem like a huge technological breakthrough, but consider how commonly they’re used in labs, hospitals, factories, etc. Building a better glove is like upgrading from a black-and-white television to color.

Guayule also produces resin, which is an ingredient in everything from paint and paper to particle board and soap. They’re also trying to make lumber products (think plywood) from it, and they hope to use what’s left over to produce bio-energy and ethanol. Because guayule is a hearty desert crop, it requires little water or fertilizer to grow. The plant has a high energy content, which will also make it attractive for upcoming cellucosic ethanol and syngas technologies.

Farmers can use similar methods and machinery from cotton fields to grow and harvest guayule, so it’s easy to make the switch. The icing on the cake is that Yulex Corp. tries to be green – they take care to keep their crop and operations as environmentally friendly as possible.

Corn and Plastic

corn fields of IowaThat’s right, corn. Believe it or not, you can make more than high fructose syrup from corn. Starches are used in everything from paper to detergent, and dextrose gives us everything from antibiotics to booze. You can even make tires out of corn. My favorite use for corn is plastic: biodegradable corn plastic.

The problem with most plastic is that it never goes away; it just breaks up into tiny pieces forever. It kills animals, and in some parts of the ocean there’s almost as many plastic granules as sand.

Biodegradable plastic provides the benefits without the ecological damage or petrochemical base. Even though corn gets a bad rap these days (for some good reasons), I’d rather have a renewable plastic source that will break down eventually. Remember that plastic provides us with everything from medical equipment to computer cases and beyond. A lot of cutting edge technology depends on it, but that doesn’t mean we want it around forever. That’s why this innovation made the list.

Cockleburs and Velcro

inspiration for VelcroGeorge de Mestral invented Velcro in 1941 after studying some of the seed pods stuck to his clothing and in his dog’s fur. Anyone growing up in the 1980s or 1990s might find Velcro old news, but its versatility and resilience really is impressive. Anything that can serve astronauts and small children – opposite extremes of human existence – is worthy of note. Did you know that each space shuttle is equipped with 10,000 inches of Velcro? That the army has top-secret silent Velcro? That two square inches of Velcro can support 175lbs?

What’s really amazing is not what Velcro can do, but what it has enabled human beings to do. Scientists in space greatly expanded the safety and convenience of life in zero-gravity with inventions like Velcro. It continues to serve astronauts as they conduct important and exciting research in space. Here on earth, the structure of Velcro is still inspiring other inventions and ideas.

Velcro is long-lasting and durable, and it can be made from recycled and recyclable materials. So aside from taking hours to comb out of your pet’s fur, it’s good to know that your local variety of burr is working hard for the humankind.

Lotus Plant and Nanotechnology

hydrophobic inspirationThe lotus plant grows in muddy waters, but its leaves emerge clean. The leaves are not smooth, yet water rolls off of them and collects dirt along the way. This is called the Lotus Effect. Microscopic structures on the leaf trap air bubbles and repel water with a waxy coating. The result is droplets of water dancing on tiny spikes instead of a flat surface. Since there’s nothing to cling to, the water is forced to roll away on the slightest decline. This superhydrophobic coating is great against water droplets, but it doesn’t work well against water vapor.

The applications for water repellent and self-cleaning coatings are almost unlimited. Imagine tools and surfaces that bacteria, food and dirt cannot stick to. Imagine clothes that rarely need to be washed. These coatings already exist and some are on the market. It can also be made with safer or fewer chemicals and increase the life cycle of many materials and resources.

The lotus plant has been a symbol of purity in Asia for thousands of years, in part thanks to its superhydrophobic leaves. Understanding how and why are perhaps just an enlightening as observing the phenomenon, as they offer insight into the ingenuity of evolution and natural systems.

Image Credit: Red algae via Wikipedia, Guayule rows via the Yulex website, Corn Lane via iowa_spirit_walker on Flickr Creative Commons, Burrs via Martin-James on Flickr Creative Commons, Lotus Leaf via tanakawho on Flickr Creative Commons.

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