You’re relaxing on the couch listening to Bowie and reading your favorite magazine. Next to you, a moss carpet and an algae aquarium are powering your iPod and the lamp you’re using to read.
Is biophotovoltaics (BPV) – an emerging technology that uses plants to produce electricity – the energy source of the future? Some researchers think so.
Biochemist Paolo Bombelli and designers Alex Driver and Carlos Peralta launched the Moss Table in 2011. A concept table covered in moss that supplies electricity to a lamp, it demonstrates a potential future application of biophotovoltaic (BPV) technology and – its designers hope – will encourage further research in this field.
For the Swiss designer Fabienne Felder, it’s a revelation. Capable of transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen and light energy through photosynthesis, moss is the “Holy Grail of sustainable development”, according to Fabienne. In the future, she believes it could be used as a lining to purify the air in airplane cabins, and power the electronic equipment used by passengers. Impressed by this futuristic scenario, Paolo Bombelli and Ross Dennis teamed up with Fabienne to take her ideas to the next level. These two pragmatic-minded scientists from the University of Cambridge decided to focus their research on an everyday object.
The result was the world’s first plant-powered radio. The radio uses photo-microbial fuel cells (photo-MFCs), which harness electrons produced by plants during photosynthesis and convert them into electrical current. Moss tufts are essentially used as biological solar panels, generating enough power for a run time of a few minutes. From a small generator to power our tablets to huge offshore algae-covered panels to light our cities, BPV has a lot of potential. According to Fabienne Felder, who founded the project in collaboration with Dr Paolo Bombelli and the scientist Ross Denis, if 25% of Londoners (around 2.7 million people) charged their phones for two hours for the rest of their lives using BPV, the United Kingdom would save enough energy to power a small town, saving 42.5 million kWh, €8.27 million and 39,632 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. Even more promising is the fact that so far the team has only managed to capture 0.1% of the electrons produced by the moss.
BPV is still at the experimental stage and energy yields are very low. Researchers hope to produce panels that are cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than conventional silicon solar panels.
Main picture: Copyright University of Cambridge and Fabienne Felder 2013.