By Jody McCutcheon
The search for clean, alternative energy sources has come far, yet won’t cease moving forward. We have “traditional” alternatives like solar, wind and geothermal power, and also more progressive ones like piezoelectric and even algae power. To the latter list we can add moss power.
A research team spearheaded by Swiss designer Fabienne Felder has used moss as a biological solar panel to create the world’s first plant-powered radio, and the first example of biophilic technology that can run a device more powerful than an LCD display.
Ten pots of moss are neatly arranged to form a Photo Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC). Photo-MFCs are bio-electrochemical devices that harness solar energy and convert it to electrical currents with the assistance of inherent, naturally occurring bacteria. Essentially, Photo-MFCs capture electrons created during photosynthesis and convert them to electricity, even in the absence of light. Each pot is connected to three things: an anode that collects photosynthesis-generated electrons, a cathode where the electrons are consumed and an external circuit that connects anode to cathode.
The Photo-MFC used in Felder’s self-described “biochemistry experiment” consists of an amalgam of water-retaining materials, conductive materials and biological matter, atop which grows the moss. Any photosynthesizing plant can be used as a biological solar panel, but bryophyte—a type of moss, hornwort or liverwort—contains particularities in its photosynthetic process that make it ultimately more efficient at generating electricity. These particular bryophytes also lower carbon dioxide levels, increase humidity levels, improve air quality, and offer “a visually and tangibly calming experience.” Moss also possesses anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.
Thus far, progress on the project has been limited. Moss radio FM presently captures only a tenth of one percent of the electrons during photosynthesis. Time and R&D will better this figure, inspiring hopes for commercial viability in five to ten years. It will be worth the effort. Felder suggests that if a quarter of London’s inhabitants (about 2.7 million people) used a bryophyte system to charge their phone for two hours every other day, 42.5 million kWh of electricity would be saved—enough energy to power a small town—and carbon dioxide output would decrease by almost 40,000 tonnes per year. Heck, Felder built the project’s radio entirely from scrap material. Talk about something old, something new.