Please try that number again

Neil

by Neil Carleton

In recent years, it seems, the words trees and electricity have been most often used together during news stories about storms and downed power lines.  Fallen branches have disrupted electrical service close to home and across the province.

The expression harnessing the power of trees has been used by at least one Ontario municipality to promote the planting of hardwood trees.  The natural shading of homes by trees reduces air conditioning costs and contributes to the reduction of energy consumption.

The concept of tapping into the power of forest plants first hit the big screen in the 1982 blockbuster movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  An alien botanist was mistakenly left behind during a collecting expedition, and he needed to call home for a ride back.  E.T. built a makeshift communications device at Elliott’s house with a computer toy and some household objects.  Together they rode a bicycle to the forest, where E.T. used the electrical power of plants to make his successful call home.

This was all in the realm of science fiction, of course, until researchers at the University of Washington reported in 2009 that there’s enough power in living trees to run an electric circuit.  The construction of a device that could run on the available power of big leaf maples led to the development of a boost converter.  This stored incoming voltage to produce a greater output.  Although the team had not established from its early research where the voltages originated, there seemed to be some signaling in trees, similar to what happens in the human body but with slower speed.

It came as quite a surprise last fall, you can imagine, to stumble across a communications device right here in the woods of Mississippi Mills that uses the electrical power of a tree.  The steep topography of Mount Pakenham is best known for winter skiing and snowboarding.  Perhaps the soil derived from this dome of pink Precambrian bedrock has unique characteristics that are favourable for such an electrical interface.  Granodiorite is a plutonic igneous rock, formed by an intrusion of silica-rich magma, which cools in batholiths below the Earth’s surface.  It’s similar to granite but contains more plagioclase than orthoclase-type feldspar.

During a morning hike on October 28, 2013, most of the deciduous leaves had fallen in the hardwood forest of maple, birch, and beech.
During a morning hike on October 28, 2013, most of the deciduous leaves had fallen in the hardwood forest of maple, birch, and beech.
Located not far from the pathway was a touch-tone telephone installed on the trunk of an American beech tree.
Located not far from the pathway was a touch-tone telephone installed on the trunk of an American beech tree.
Cleverly mounted with a hidden electrical interface, this device appeared to be password protected from unauthorized use.
Cleverly mounted with a hidden electrical interface, this device appeared to be password protected from unauthorized use.

Do you have a notable or favourite tree?  Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles.  You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <ve3nce@gmail.ca>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0.  I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee.  The contact for the Tree Working Group is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617.  In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with shady characters.