Gallery: Fighting Forest Fires with Tree Power


We all know that trees are generous givers. They eliminate carbon dioxide, provide a home for little critters, and offer us shade.  However, there seems to be one last untapped resource: trees can also produce small amounts of electricity. And now researchers at MIT have begun to develop a way to harness that power so trees can finally do something for themselves: track climate changes that will help minimize damage from forest fires.

For some time, the US Forest Service  has regularly tracked and predicted forest fires with over 2,000 automated weather stations in forests around the US. These weather stations track climate data, such as humidity and temperature, which is used in fire prediction models to forecast fire activity and help fire fighters suppress fires quickly. Up until now though, these weather stations have been battery operated and sparsely located throughout forests, making it costly to replace batteries and hard to collect enough data.

Scientists have known for some time that trees produce a small amount of electricity. After a lot of research and debunked theories on how it happens, researchers from MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering (CBE) have discovered that trees produce electricity due to a fairly simple phenomenon. An imbalance in pH between the tree and the soil creates an electrical charge, which can be used to power very small devices.

Although trees do not produce a lot of energy, with a trickle charge, the tree’s own electricity can power a weather station the size of a pack of gum- and give scientists and fire fighters enough real-time information to provide early warning alerts of forest fires. Additionally, the bio-energy power module gathers the electricity from the tree without harming it, and will last as long as the tree is alive.

The new technology is being tested and produced by Voltree Power, based in Massachusetts. This coming spring, the team will test their new power system in order to perfect their low-cost, self-sustainable, real-time monitoring stations.  The team hopes to install these devices in a mesh network throughout forests

+ MIT News

+ US Forest Service



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  1. Hits Singapore » ... October 10, 2008 at 4:49 am

    […] Thanks, MIT. Why don’t you just make the rest of the world feel a little more useless. Every week or so, we’re forced to stare at yet another amazing invention coming from your doors; to be frank, it’s just downright unfair. All childish angst aside, the latest idea to come from the institution is one that could certainly be put to good use: a self-sustaining sensor network that taps into trees for power in order to continuously monitor forests for threats of fire. Moreover, the concept could be applied in other scenarios as well — to detect potential threats such as smuggled contraband along a nation’s borders, perhaps. Testing of the wireless sensor network (developed by the appropriately named Voltree Power) is scheduled to begin next spring, and we’re hearing that pot-sniffing turtles may even be brought in to create a completely natural self-policing environment. [Via Inhabitat] […]

  2. NaturallyEarth September 27, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Huh, that’s interesting. I can’t wait to read more on this when more tests are done. If it’s viable, maybe we can stop cutting so many trees down.

  3. MIT gurus dream up self... September 27, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    […] turtles may even be brought in to create a completely natural self-policing environment.[Via Inhabitat]Read | Permalink | Email […]

  4. Steve N. Lee September 26, 2008 at 2:38 am

    Trees as power ‘plants’?! ‘This is kind of weird, kind of cool!

    If it doesn’t harm the tree, as the article says, this is great. Forest fires damage millions of acres of land a year, damage property, kill people, and put many others, e.g. the firefighters, at risk so anything that can give us an advantage over fires is to be welcomed.

    But then, if this process can truly be harnessed, couldn’t it be rolled out into other ventures? For example, trees could provide light in our cities at night. Okay, it’s not going to be a lot of light from the trickle charge they produce, but it could be stored during the day,then used at night, maybe with a group of trees all hooked up together. After all, a little light is better than no light. Plus, this ‘natural’ light would mean we didn’t need to burn as much fuel and produce carbon emissions to light our dark areas. Obviously it wouldn’t make a vast difference, but every little helps.

    This could also be used for garden lighting which many people like – so reducing power consumption further.

    And the knock-on effect would be that trees became much more appreciated! People would take care of them, maybe even plant more. Okay, not for strictly the right reasons, i.e. it would be just another way to bleed resources out of the natural world, but it is a sustainable method. As long as it really does NOT cause the trees harm or stress.

    Yeah, I can see many possible uses of this technology.
    Good news,
    Steve N. Lee
    author of eco-blog
    and suspense thriller ‘What if…?’

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