The algae-powered thermometer is another demonstration of “photo microbial fuel cells”, pMFCs. It was developed as an exhibition piece for the 2018 show “BioDesign: From Inspiration to Integration” at the Rhode Island School of Design Nature Lab, curated by William Myers. The same “candy” vessel version was also exhibited at BUGA 2019 (German National Gardening Show), as part of “Materials Labyrinth”, curated by Haute Innovation Berlin. A more easily transportable “flat-pack” version was developed in 2019 for the special exhibition “Disruptive Materials” at Interzum 2019, also curated by Haute Innovation Berlin.
pMFCs make use of living plants’ photosynthesis as well as naturally occurring colonies of bacteria to generate electricity. After Moss FM, the self-defined objective was now not only to try with a different type of plant, but to create a piece of work simple and robust enough to be able to function over a long period of time in a normal household. The resulting algae-powered thermometer makes use of microalgae to power an off-the-shelf temperature sensor and LCD. It continuously ran for several months at the Rhode Island School of Design as part of the Biodesign exhibition and was the only living exhibit in the show.
All parts (including the algae) in the system are sourced from brick-and-mortar or online retailers, apart from the acrylic fixtures in the first iteration, which were custom cut. The later version then eliminated all hard parts (wooden accents for mere aesthetic reasons) to make shipping exceedingly easy and reduce carbon footprint associated with transportation.
These thoughts and approaches emphasise the strong do-it-yourself ethos in my work in the field of biodesign. Biodesign crosses over between science, design, and engineering and often ventures into uncharted territory, making it essential for designers, makers, and artists to tinker and experiment. The idea of experimentation is also carried through appearance, with wires being exposed and wood unfinished. The thermometer and the algae tanks that power it, are not a polished, glossy product but rather an experiment in progress. The focus should lie on the technology and a transparent demonstration of how it works, as well as the ever so often underestimated algae.
Special thanks go to Waldemar Matuska of THINGCONNECT New York who was essential in developing an easy-to-build installation and Dr. Brenda Parker of University College London for her invaluable input and wealth of knowledge on algae. Three species are featured: Dunaliella salina, Porphydidium cruentum, and Chlorella vulgaris.