Moss-powered future

Moss cell. Image courtesy of Fabienne Felder. All rights reserved.

Moss, Photo-MFC. Image courtesy of Fabienne Felder. All rights reserved.

Recently at work I got to write a short piece about this exciting new technology – world’s first moss-powered radio! I also got in touch with one of its creators, Fabienne Felder, but unfortunately, due to a short timeframe, I was able to include only some of her quotes in my article. Not wanting Ms. Felder’s long and interesting replies to go unused, I asked her permission to reproduce them in full here. You can find them below, following the quick intro to the technology.

Moss are cool – and can be used to produce electricity, believes Fabienne Felder, a creative strategist and designer from Switzerland. Together with collaborators, a biochemist Dr. Paolo Bombelli and plant scientist Ross Dennis of the University of Cambridge, she has built a working radio, all powered by the energy harnessed from moss. At the heart of Moss FM, as the device is called, are Photo Microbial Fuel Cells (Photo-MFCs). These cells utilise electrons that moss produce during photosynthesis, thus basically turning plants into “biological solar panels”.

This is how Photo-MFCs work, as described in Moss FM press release:

The cells in Moss FM are Photo Microbial Fuel Cells, i.e. bioelectrochemical devices capable of harnessing solar energy and turning it into electrical current with the help of bacteria. These bacteria naturally occur in the organic material used. The device takes advantage of photosynthetic organisms and uses them to extract electrons, protons, and oxygen from water. The Photo-MFC generally consist of i) an anode where the electrons generated by photosynthesis are collected, ii) a cathode where the electrons are finally consumed reforming water and iii) an external circuit connecting anode to the cathode. In addition, a salt bridge allows protons to migrate from the anodic to the cathodic region to ensure the device’s electro-neutrality.

According to Ms. Felder, the initial idea was to create a “mossy electricity-generating surface” to cover the inside of aircraft cabins and similar spaces. Due to technical difficulties and much longer time scale required to make this a reality, the team eventually decided to focus instead on a smaller device which could be functional and completely moss-powered now, instead of sometime in the future.

Moss FM consists of a total of ten Photo-MFCs. Current technology allows to power continuously and directly from the moss cells only small devices – such as LCD screens. Gadgets requiring more energy are powered via a battery charged exclusively by Photo-MFCs. At the moment, the radio can run for a few minutes on this stored energy. According to the creators, today they can only harness about 0.1 percent of moss’s energy. However, the potential is there and it’s impressive. As per Moss FM press release:

If 25% of Londoners (ca. 2.7 million people) charged their mobile phone on average for 2 hours every other day with moss, we would save enough electricity to power a small town: 42.5 million kWh, amounting to a saving of £6.81 Million and 39,632 Tons of CO2 a year.

Theoretically, any plant could be used in place of the moss, say creators. However, bryophytes seem to be the most suitable for harnessing energy as during photosynthesis they produce surplus electrons, which then can be easily tapped. In addition to this, as Ms. Felder explains below, they wanted to bring public’s attention to moss, which are considered far less often than other flora. Moss possess various additional qualities that could also be beneficial in building and design, including great insulation capacity, air pollution reduction and water purification, among many others.

Q: Was the moss the first plant that you tried to harness energy from or did you experiment with other plants beforehand?

A: The technology works with other plants as well. But because of some characteristics in the photosynthetic process of mosses, they lend themselves well for this technology. For me personally, I’ve started off straight away with moss, because of my collaboration with Dr. Bombelli. I have seen other design pieces that power digital clocks, for example, that use normal houseplants. But mosses are more interesting to me, because most people don’t even know that they are there and don’t realise how beautiful they are. We like promoting moss, so that people start noticing and appreciating them. I can also tell you that the team of Dr. Bombelli works with algae too, and it’s possible that they started their process with algae, but he’ll be better able to tell you about that. Also, what is new about the radio is that for the first time something was powered that requires significantly more electricity than LCD screens, digital clocks, etc.

Q: What do you think are the main issues of this technology (apart from it not being very efficient at the moment, which I’m sure will soon change)?

A: Yes, the inefficiency is the biggest challenge at the moment and it will be the most crucial part in terms of scaling the technology up. I think, in general, working with living organisms isn’t easy. No matter what plant you work with, you have to understand it to keep it happy and growing. This will mean that the right plants have to be used in the right location, or be grown for that purpose.

The whole idea of dealing with the plants in the right way will also influence the scaling up. Let’s say you wanted an entire moss wall that generates electricity, you have to make sure to place it on a side of your house that doesn’t have direct sunlight, for example, because they don’t like that.

But mosses are more interesting to me, because most people don’t even know that they are there and don’t realise how beautiful they are.

For other plants it could be the exact opposite. So you have to understand the plants. But that doesn’t mean the end-user needs to be a biologist. It just means that designers and architects use the right plants for the right purpose and the end-user only needs a little instruction on how much water they need, for example. Just like keeping a houseplant. Or the irrigation will ultimately even be part of the whole design.

We certainly also don’t want people to go out and destroy ecosystems by suddenly collecting a lot of moss from the woods. Responsibility is a key word here. But there’s also something beautiful about the idea of having to really care for your electricity generator and make sure you look after it properly. This should sensitise people to our high levels of electricity consumption, for example.

Q: I read in one of your recent interviews that the next step is to streamline and scale up the technology. Could you say something more about the scaling up part? How are you planning to achieve this?

A: As mentioned above, the main concern will be further research in terms of efficiency. But efficiency not only refers to gaining more electricity from the plants, it also refers to other materials used in the process. So far we’ve applied the technology on a small-scale, at times using quite expensive materials (e.g. carbon fibre, etc.) Scaling up will therefore also involve finding an efficient use of materials.

It will involve a lot of research in terms of the size of a cell (or let’s say a plant patch), because both too small and too large cells are not efficient – so the scientists need to figure out the optimum size of a cell, which can be beneficial or also limiting to scaling up.

The output of a photo microbial fuel cell varies constantly, which leads to an unstable current. At the moment we have solved this by charging capacitors and batteries with our moss and then run the radio from those moss-charged batteries. Scaling up will also require a bigger electricity storage in order to guarantee a stable current feeding into whatever you want to power.

There’s also something beautiful about the idea of having to really care for your electricity generator and make sure you look after it properly.

At the moment, this is all I can say, due to a very mundane problem we are facing: a certain lack of money. We wanted, for example, to make a new version of a radio that would run for much longer, therefore requiring much more moss. This would have been a really good test of scaling up, from which we could draw new conclusions. But because we’re unfortunately struggling with funding, we have not had a chance of trying this out yet.

In the long run, it would be fantastic, to actually use mossy roofs as electricity generators. The team around Dr. Bombelli has also considered large floating algae farms/generators, or one day maybe even certain types of farm-land could double up as electricity generations (rice paddies, for example). But these are really hypothetical questions until we get the very first chance to build something big and learn by trial and error.

Thank you for your replies!

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3 responses to “Moss-powered future

  1. Pingback: Writing environment: the Basic things | EcoPost·

  2. Pingback: Biological solar panels: Future is plant generated electricity·

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