The installation "Plant Properties" shows how ambient lighting by living plants could look like.

More than just a light

Plants that provide light and thus reduce energy consumption: Professors Sheila Kennedy and Michael Strano are investigating the use of nanobionic organisms that could change our urban structures in the long term.
by Anna Moldenhauer | 5/14/2019

The "Plant Properties" project will show ways of living with a nanobionic, plant-based infrastructure. It combines scientific findings with design and urban planning. The current state of research can recently be viewed in the installation "Plant Properties, a Future Urban Development" at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City and the Cube Design Museum in the Netherlands. Sheila Kennedy of Kennedy & Violich Architecture, together with her KVA team and colleague Michael Strano at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created the Plant Properties installation. Kennedy explains how the architecture of the future might change to support the growth of living nanobionic plants.

Anna Moldenhauer: What is the goal of your experimental project?

Sheila Kennedy: The Plant Properties installation is part of an ongoing collaboration with Strano Lab at MIT and the KVA Matx design team. Our project is special because it was developed by an interdisciplinary team of chemical engineers, biologists, designers and architects who are jointly researching the necessary infrastructure for nanobionic plants. The goal is to create ambient lighting with living plants. The plants are not genetically altered in any way. The nanobionic techniques can be transferred to any existing plant, shrub or tree. Plants are a living technology. They generate and store their own fuel from sunlight, they access water from diverse environments. They can self-repair and persist severe weather events - all autonomously. Nanobionic plants would be able to provide ambient lighting that absorbs carbon dioxide emissions without the need for batteries or electricity. Most people see plants only as decoration or for use in agriculture. We want the public to understand what ecological services plants could provide.

How does the process work in detail?

Sheila Kennedy: My MIT colleague Michael Strano has pioneered a new set of techniques and an operational theory that is termed as Plant Nanobionics. This strategy uses nanoparticles to engineer living plants with new functionality. Nanoparticles of firefly luciferase are infused into the plant's biological life structure. In this way, the plant can use part of its energy to produce visible light. Our work adds nanophosphors that can absorb and re-emit generated light at longer times, increasing the duration of light emission. The photosynthesis of the plants is not affected. Since the organisms are not genetically modified, nanobionic plants cannot reproduce. If a nanobionic plant dies, it no longer produces light. We believe that plant nanobionics will lead to more nurturing relationships with the vegetative world and renewed forms of partnerships between plants and people.

In the vision of Kennedy and Strano, inner gardens thrive in buildings by means of light shafts. However, plant care becomes a collective activity and is the responsibility of the citizens.

So the new form of light production could lead to a more conscious use of resources?

Sheila Kennedy: Yeah, definitely. For evolutionary reasons, plants have developed "excess energy" reserves - ways to generate and store more chemical energy than they actually need. The process uses part of the plant's excess energy and converts it into visible light. Nanobionic plants should not simply be seen as a "replacement" for electrical light. They do not need wires, factories, they sequester CO2 emissions. With a plant infrastructure, the ecological footprint and the negative impact of artificial lighting on humans would change. Centralized energy systems such as nuclear power or fossil fuels are incredibly harmful and wasteful, but they have been part of our "modern life" for so long that they are largely undisputed. Even architects might not understand that a typical fluorescent light in an office workplace contains far more ‘toxicity’ than a nanobionic plant. We need bold visions and action on many fronts to address carbon emisisons. This project is an attempt to bring science and design together to explore what such a plant infrastructure could mean for architecture and society.

What would the illumination look like in everyday life?

Sheila Kennedy: Lighting will need to change and evolve with plants, just as there has been a cultural evolution from candles to gas or from gas to electricity. Plant communities communicate via chemical signals. The project is working on using these to enable a plant to turn its light on or off according to photo-sensing levels of available light.

How strong is the current luminosity of the plants?

Sheila Kennedy: Currently, the plant light is bright enough to read numbers. Our goal is to produce enough light to be able to read a book. The lighting lasts about an hour at the moment, in the future a duration of days and weeks should be possible. At present, the nanoparticles are infused into the plant leaves by hand. In the future, plants might be able to be infused using other strategies that could be easily scaled.

Exterior view of the "Plant Properties" installation
Detail of the light shaft of the installation through which the sunlight is reflected to the plants.

What influence would nanobionic plants have on our urban environment? 

Sheila Kennedy: In the last two decades, the integration of plants into architecture has been guided by the idea that plants conform with and be limited to the geometries and conditions of architecture. Nanobionic plants are "disobedient" to these geometries. In order for people to benefit from their light, wild growing plants require abundant soils and sunlight. We propose an architecture that enables plants to thrive only with natural forces - sunlight, gravity, recycled water, soil, and natural ventilation and entry places for pollinators. Existing urban structures should be able to be modified and adapted to support wild plants. Plant production - whether nanobionic or not - means finding new ways to bring water recycling, composting, natural ventilation and sunlight deep into urban buildings. A dream and a future objective would be to realize a residential building that demonstrates the integration of these natural systems to support living plants and gardens inside of architecture.

"Plant Properties, a Future Urban Development"
is part of the exhibition "Nature-cooper hewitt design triennial".

Until 20 January 2020

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
2 East 91st St
New York, NY, 10128, USA

Opening hours:
Weekdays and Sundays 10 am to 6 pm
Saturday 10 am to 9 pm

Cube Design Museum
Museumplein 2
6461 MA Kerkrade, Netherlands

Opening hours:
Tuesday till Sunday 10 am to 5 pm