MIT senior harnesses tree power

By Christina DeNardo
Palm Beach, FL (January 3, 2009)- Christopher Love won’t graduate from college until May, but his resume already reads like a veteran scientist’s. During the summer, he worked at an Italian utility company studying the ability of geothermal and solar thermal power to run a power plant. This month, he’ll travel to India to use his technical expertise to help a community create a more effective way to crack walnuts, its main source of commerce. Oh, and he’s the vice president of an alternative energy company that has harnessed the energy emanating from trees to power sensors that can detect forest fires.


Love, 21, is a graduate of Atlantic High in Delray Beach and a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I love tackling tough scientific questions and trying to figure out the reason why,” said Love, who was home in Atlantis for the holidays. “But I do that trying to think what we can use this for and how can we get it to others.”
The tree-power project started three years ago as a summer research project. For years scientists, though not many others, knew that trees could generate a small amount of electricity – just enough to power a tiny light bulb. What they didn’t know was why. There were theories, such as that flowing sap created the power, but scientists remained skeptical.
After eliminating many theories, the researchers discovered that it was not the sap but the differences in the amount of pH in the tree and the soil that produced the electric current. It took the scientists three years to develop rock-solid evidence defending their explanation. In September, Love authored a paper on the discovery.
Trees generate only a few hundred millivolts of electricity; 1.5 volts are needed to power a TV remote. By using some proprietary hardware and software tricks, Love and his colleagues amplified the tiny current to 2.4 volts, enough energy to power a small sensor.
While conducting his research, Love had not thought too much about its effect, but after the discovery it became clear: Using sensors powered by the trees, one could create a monitoring program that would pick up on the changes in temperature and humidity in a forest and send them to forestry officials. The officials then could determine how to position firefighters and resources.
“Right now there are raw systems, called remote automated weather systems, that are placed in clearings and run on solar power,” Love said. “But they are 50 to 100 miles apart and they cost a few thousand dollars. It’s like trying to predict the temperature of a turkey without using a thermometer probe. We go into the turkey.”
Love and his colleagues are still working on developing a prototype, which is being designed and marketed by Voltree Power, a Massachusetts-based start-up in which Love serves as the vice president of research and development.
He expects it will be completed by the spring. If the tests are successful, the U.S. Forest Service could plant sensors in the most fire-prone areas of the country. Beyond that, the sensors also could be used to detect motion along border crossings and radiation that could signal movement of smuggled radioactive materials.
But Love, who plans to attend graduate school, wants to focus his future research on alternative energy. “I’m passionate about energy problems,” Love said. “It’s kind of a serious issue and I would like to work on certain technology that would make the world’s energy supply more sustainable.”
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