Cars (and Trees) Will Glow Like Bioluminescent Jellyfish

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Recently, the only phosphorescent car in the world, the all-electric Nissan LEAF, was driven on the only highway in the world that uses phosphorescent paint to illuminate traffic lanes. The result: a compelling peek at the potential future of night, with bright lights replaced by glowing roads powered by the sun.

Nissan began applying a proprietary glow-in-the-dark paint to its all-electric LEAF just last month. Charged by UV rays during the day, the car’s paint lights up at night, glowing for as long as ten hours.

But what good is a glow-in-the-dark car on perpetually lit roads? The smart highway — a 600-meter stretch of road near the Dutch city Oss — is the brainchild of Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, and it replaces the reflective traffic lines we're used to with lines that glow. Roosegaarde and his collaborators from the civil engineering firm Heijmans are using a secret formula for photoluminescent paint: In addition to drawing energy from the sun, the paint absorbs the light given off by headlights, holding a charge long enough to stay aglow from dusk to dawn.

The goal is to turn streetlights into relics, saving energy and providing more visible markings for drivers, and, in turn, safer roads. And, if it means that bright lights can be discarded, it could help diminish light pollution, too. In this vision of the future, the night is closer to an ocean lit by bioluminescent sea creatures than a carnival of flashing lights.

Another key element of a less-bright night: glowing trees. As fanciful as this sounds, it’s not that far off. Just last year, the St. Louis company Bioglow crossed DNA from luminescent marine life with a common houseplant to produce a new, glowing plant that would do a lot of good outside the house. Now Bioglow and Roosegaarde are working together to make tree-size versions of that technology. Another collaborator of Roosegaarde’s, Glowing Nature, is attempting a similar end with less invasive means, by developing a “paint” from luminescent mushrooms that transfer their glowing properties to trees. Separately, a San Francisco–based company called Glowing Plants is laser printing DNA that can make plants glow. If you want to test drive the concept at home, Glowing Plants will sell you a glowing plant for your bedroom. It's just $100, and better company than a lava lamp.