In the future, your side lamp could be powered by your side table? A side table stuffed with moss. Earlier this year an annual KPMG survey predicted that oil prices will peak between $131 and $140 a barrel in the next year, compared to $89 dollars currently. Now more than ever we need to find a viable alternative power source: the big question is, which alternative will get the longterm backing of politicians around the globe?
Solar and windpower may be the predicted winners for immediate financial backing, but two Cambridge University departments are hedging their bets on something else entirely: biophotovoltaic (BPV) technology, using the photosynthesis of living organisms such as algae and moss to harness a new renewable energy.
Biophotovoltaics may have been the subject of Ian McEwan’s recent comedy Solar, but the field is no joke. It uses a tried and tested natural process that takes place all around us, every second of every hour: photosynthesis. The Cambridge professors are hopeful that the technology could genuinely become a viable source of renewable energy in the next ten years
BPV technology works by exploiting the photosynthetic apparatus of biological material, such as cyanobacteria or algae, to convert the solar energy into electrical energy.
Research into Biophotovoltaics is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and involves collaboration between the departments of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, Biochemistry and Plant Sciences at Cambridge University, and the Chemistry department at Bath University. The research is jointly led by Dr Adrian Fisher, Professor Christopher Howe and Professor Alison Smith in Cambridge, and Doctor Petra Cameron in Bath.
A separate research project called Design in Science, also funded by the EPSRC and led by Dr James Moultrie, is being conducted at Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing. Its aim is to explore how designers can play a role in early stage scientific research. The teams working on these projects have joined forces to bring together design and science to produce a number of concepts, including a table incorporating BPV technology as well as an array of algae solar panels for domestic use, a near shore generator that harvests desalinated water, and an off-shore power station consisting of several giant floating ‘lily pads’ coated in algae.
The purpose of these concepts is to demonstrate through a familiar domestic object, that this early stage technology has potential applications that could be incorporated in everyday aspects of our lives.
Alex Driver and Carlos Peralta from Cambridge’s Institute of manufacturing collaborated with Paolo Bombelli from the University’s Chemical engineering and biotechnology department in order to create these practical and commerciable concepts for BPV technology.
“The research is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and has involved Carlos and I providing design support to scientific teams across Cambridge over the last two years,” Driver told Humans Invent. “We met Paolo (Bombelli) in February 2010, and were really keen to persuade him to participate in the project as we were fascinated by the idea of generating energy from plants.
“Fortunately for us Paolo had an exhibition coming up and needed somebody to help him design some posters. We persuaded Paolo and his colleagues to participate in a brainstorming session to conceptualise future applications of BPV technology, which included algae solar panels and giant floating ‘lily-pad’ power stations. We created visualisations of these applications for a poster.”
“Our visualisations went down rather well, so we decided to try and build the algae solar panel, which turned out to be quite a challenge. Although it wasn’t very efficient, it shed some light on the challenges of scaling up the technology and allowed Paolo to gather some data on the production of desalinated water which is a waste product of one of the reactions occurring in the device.”
Why algae? Simple: the fossilised organisms crushed together over millions of years to produce oild and coal were algae – or a close equivalent according to American scientists. Initially, the problem was that the algae grew too slowly to be a suitable biofuel, but in July this year, a team at the University of Kentucky made a breakthrough. Focusing their attentions on Botryococcus Braunli, a specific algae that has rich oil producing genes, eventually engineering the genes into yeast cells. However, while this link has been confirmed, the project at the University of Cambridge was developing the BPV technology, using photosynthesis to convert solar into electrical energy.
To help the public at large get to grips with the concepts of BVP, the initiatives created conepts with ideas for everyday use in the future that included algae solar panels, a table stuffed with moss, and algae-based masts.
“Carlos and I suggested that we try to build a table incorporating a lamp powered by a BPV device, to exhibit at a major design event in order to communicate the potential of the technology to the general public,” Driver explained to Humans Invent.
The concept table gives a glimpse into the ‘vision of the future’ in which products may be powered by small BPV devices such as alarm clocks and lamps.
“Paolo agreed, and suggested that we base the device on moss as it would be more robust than the algae we had been using up until that time. I spent a lot of time with Paolo in his lab working on iterations of the moss device, so I guess you could say we blurred the boundaries between the designer and the scientist a little.”
“Meanwhile Carlos led on the design of the table, but there was a lot of integration between the three of us. We exhibited the table at the London Design Festival in September and we’re planning on taking it to Milan next year. I think we demonstrated that designers can contribute to research by conceptualising applications for new technology, helping to steer research directions and supporting scientists in demonstrating and communicating their work.”
The algae powered solar panels could be used in any home in the future, while the Lily pad concept would provide an large scale off-shore energy alternative as well, with the BVP station able to generate energy during the night, as a result of excess electrons being stored inside the algae based cells during daylight hours.
Another design was a set of masts that harvests algae for BVP production, harnessing rainwater, absorbing maximum sunlight, and up-rooting water from the ground in order to keep the algae alive.
The ideas are still very much at the concept stage, as the current production of energy is too inefficient to go into immediate production, with commerciable concepts roughly ten years away according to the initiative. However the method behind the concepts showcases to the world that this technology could be a realistic long-term alternative as a renewable energy – while also highlighting the benefit of scientists and designers collaborating in the early stages of developing a new technology. And hey, they make a great, if slimy, talking piece in the meantime.