The Roots of Power: How Voltree is Tapping Tree Energy to Save Forests

11/26/08Follow @wroush

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the voltage difference wasn’t due to any of those things. It was being generated by the simple difference in pH between tree tissue and soil.

It didn’t seem to matter where Love placed the electrodes: the voltage difference was the same. And attaching the electrode and draining a bit of electricity didn’t seem to harm the trees at all. “We found it difficult to resist speculating that there may be possible practical applications of these findings,” Love’s paper concluded. Among those applications, the paper speculated, might be “a wide variety of trickle chargers for niche, low-power, pulsed, off-grid distributed systems—including forest fire detectors; environmental sensors; and ‘smart dust’ or mesh-networked devices drastically decreasing the need for in-the-field battery changes.”

All along, in fact, Karavas and MagCap president Chris Lagadinos had hoped Wadle’s technology could be adapted to power environmental sensors for forestry, and they had founded Voltree in 2005—well before Love even started his research—to hold the patents for the idea and commercialize the technology. Love and Mershin joined the company this September—Love as vice president of research and development, Mershin as scientific advisor.

Voltree has already made solid progress on a system of small tree-powered sensors designed to be placed in fire-prone national forests, where they’d monitor temperature and humidity and radio the data back to remote automated weather stations (RAWS) operated by the U.S. Forest Service. In March, Karavas says, Voltree will install a prototype network on a small parcel of land in Boise National Forest in Idaho, with the main goal of testing trees as a power supply and showing that the system can be integrated with the existing RAWS system.

Forest FireOver the past decade, the Forest Service has spent a billion dollars a year, on average, to suppress or fight forest fires. Anything that can help the agency predict or control fires better, Karavas says, has the potential to prevent unnecessary property damage and save taxpayers tens of millions.

RAWS networks are part of the solution. “But they’re huge, solar-powered things that cost about $15,000 each,” says Karavas. “And they’re usually in clearings, so they’re not getting accurate data. Being able to put sensing equipment all over the terrain will give them a more magnified view of what’s going on.”

But even if the Boise tests are a success, Voltree probably won’t try to commercialize the technology on its own. Karavas says the company is in the middle of choosing a strategic partner to handle the wireless-communications end of the system and help manufacture the devices at scale. “I don’t want to jump the gun and say who they are,” Karavas says. (Knowing a bit about this field, I can guess at a few of the possibilities, such as Boston-based Ember and German tech giant Siemens, which have both spent years investigating self-organizing wireless “mesh” networks.)

Meanwhile, the property around Karavas’s house in Canton is serving as a living laboratory, with Voltree sensors hooked up to dozens of trees. “They’re transmitting data to an FTP site, where we’re recording and logging the data for purposes of testing different electrode materials and how they react,” she says. “As we do that we’re simultaneously studying the wireless architecture.”

Voltree has applied for an $80,000 Small Business Innovative Research Grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pursue the research, and may also look beyond MagCap for a small amount of outside funding next year, Karavas says. “I don’t think we’ll need venture capital,” she says. “We have bootstrapped most of this, so we’re probably looking for under a million.”

So, calling all tree-hugging angel investors: there’s a green-energy company in Canton that’s looking to grow.

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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