With the promise of natural lighting from plants, buildings of the future may return to the ‘old ways’ of integrating natural processes into the structure. 

Buildings could include collections of glowing plants designed around an infrastructure of sunlight harvesting, water transport and soil collecting and composting systems, according to a research team that includes an MIT architecture professor and a professor of chemical engineering. 

Light-emitting plants are not genetically-modified to emit light. Instead, they are infused with nanoparticles that turn the plant's stored energy into light, similar to how fireflies glow.

"The transformation makes virtually any plant a sustainable, potentially revolutionary technology," says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. 

"It promises lighting independent of an electrical grid, with 'batteries' you never need to charge, and power lines that you never need to lay.”

Strano and his colleagues soon realised they needed partners who could expand the concept and understand its challenges and potential as part of a future of sustainable energy. He sought the involvement of Sheila Kennedy, professor of architecture at MIT and principal at Kennedy and Violich Architecture, who is known for her work in clean energy infrastructure.

According to Kennedy and Strano, the plants could be at the centre of a new—but also "pre-eclectic"—idea in architecture.

For most of human history, says Kennedy, natural processes from sunlight to waste composting were part of the essential infrastructure of buildings. These processes have been excluded in modern thinking, preventing people from coming face to face with the environmental costs of energy infrastructure made from toxic materials and powered by fossil fuels.

“People don't question the impacts of our own mainstream electrical grid today. It's very vulnerable, it's very brittle, it's so very wasteful and it's also full of toxic material,” says Kennedy.

"Lighting right now consumes a vast portion of our energy demand, approaching close to 20 percent of our global energy consumption, generating two gigatons of carbon dioxide per year," adds Strano.

"Consider that the plants replace more than just the lamp on your desk. There's an enormous energy footprint that could potentially be replaced by the light-emitting plant.”

The team is continuing to work on new ways to infuse the nanoparticles in the plants, so they work over the lifetime of the plant, as well as experimenting on larger plants such as trees. However, for the plants to thrive, architects will have to develop building infrastructure that integrates the plants into a new internal ecosystem of sunlight, water and waste disposal.

"If plants are to provide people with light, we need to keep plants healthy to benefit from everything they provide for us," says Kennedy.

"We think this is going to trigger a much more caring or nurturing relationship of people and their plants, or plants and the people that they illuminate."

Featured image: Glowing nanobionic watercress illuminates the book “Paradise Lost.” Credit: Strano Research Group