Printed trees provide renewable energy

Energy needs are constantly growing and trees are still being chopped down for firewood in many parts of the world. Scientists at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are turning this approach around. Instead of harvesting trees, they are printing artificial trees to harvest energy from the environment. The trees consist of wood-based 3D printed stems and printed solar cells as leaves.

Energy needs are constantly growing and trees are still being chopped down for firewood in many parts of the world. Scientists at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are turning this approach around. Instead of harvesting trees, they are printing artificial trees to harvest energy from the environment. The trees consist of wood-based 3D printed stems and printed solar cells as leaves.

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When trying to find a way to harvest energy from the environment, the team at VTT looked to nature. Trees seemed the perfect solution so they modeled their invention after nature’s answer to energy needs. The artificial trees are made by combining 3D printing and printing electronics. At their current size, they are efficient enough to power small devices such as mobile phones, humidifiers, thermometers and LED light bulbs.

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The tree’s leaves are flexible organic solar cells printed using well-established mass-production techniques. Each leaf has a separate power converter, creating a multi converter system that makes it possible to collect energy from a variety of sources like solar, wind and heat temperature. The more solar panels there are in a tree, the more energy it can harvest. The stems and branches are made with 3D printing technology, using wood-based biomaterials VTT has developed.

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The trees can be used inside and outside an a variety of environments since they are not only able to harvest energy from the sun as conventional solar cells do but also from wind and temperature changes. Because of the printing the techniques involved, VTT says the trees are infinitely replicable and could easily be mass-produced. At present, they only exist in small numbers. But if the scientists from VTT get their wishes, we may soon see forested consisting of printed trees. While the current models are small, the team says the energy harvesting trees are scalable and could mimic real-life trees in size.