Lighting up our world without heating up our planet

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By Chloe Tan

On the Biodesign Night: Solar Edition, a crowd of biologists, engineers and solar enthusiasts came together to learn from artist Pallas Agterberg, fellow artist and biologist, Teresa van Dongen, and engineers and entrepreneurs, Joost Brand and Sander Hazewinkel. It was an evening of discussing the outlook and possibilities of how best to harvest alternative energy sources that collaborate with the sun to create biocircular solutions. 

To start off, Pallas Agterberg brought us on a journey along the historic timeline of how the economy has been managed over time with ever changing values, whereby things are becoming increasingly monetised in the free market economy, with less efforts to care for the social and environmental aspects. A thoughtful question posed was: “If you burn something, this changes it to a different form which cannot be used again.” So what are we doing to prevent this irreversible process and how can we create energy without burning? Pallas believes that making solutions and things local is increasingly important whereby science, knowledge and learning can all be exchanged between local communities and neighbourhoods.

As the essence of science is that “We’re all in search of better solutions!”, this Biodesign Night, hence, contributes to her proposed solution by providing a platform for the exchange of ideas and best practices which can be seen from the following speakers. 

Joost Brand, the CTO of Borg, shared about their latest low-tech innovation called Summerheat which makes heat storage from solar and wind energy feasible, sustainable and scalable. It provides energy when the sun doesn’t shine since there can be two sources of energy: one from one’s own roof and the other, when it’s abundant from the grid. Furthermore, the simplicity of the system (hence, being labeled low-tech) was welcomed by several in the crowd as the way to move forward since the climate impact of production is much smaller than with batteries and is likely more scalable. Energy storage is done with water as the medium and the cost compared to using a battery is 20 times cheaper. 

Following after, Teresa van Dongen, a biodesigner, shared about her search for new forms of light – using microbes that excrete energy. Her research revolves around the use of algae, which consumes sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce all kinds of output including sugar and biofuels. An example includes the Photobacterium, a type of microbe that not only excites us when it lights up the beach as the waves crash the shore, but is also found through symbiosis that happens on the skin of certain species of octopus, which it uses to attract mating partners. Through further research, it was learnt that these microbes excrete light due to movements that introduce oxygen into the process, although using them as a form of light energy requires these organisms to be fed and nurtured daily. Hence, the ‘Spark of Life’ was designed and developed as an organic solar cell with inspirations from the Dye Sens Solar Cell, with the need to feed it only once a week. To encourage the public to experiment with these alternative forms of energy and light, the researchers have designed a kit to grow your own solar cell, which would soon be made publicly available. 

Lastly, Sander Hazewinkel from LGEM, shared with us their technology of integrating algae into the design of photobioreactors. Starting from the basics, he answered the following questions.

What are algae and why do we need them?

Algae is a diverse group of photosynthetic organisms that are globally present and the largest producers of oxygen, supplying the air we breathe. Their significance comes from also being a good source of nutrients and being fast growing. However, we consume most of these nutrients from the ‘middle-man’, such as abstracting omega 3 from fishes. Doing so not only threatens these species but also, as the nutrients are becoming less concentrated in these organisms, we require an even greater harvest to derive the same amount of nutrients. So why not just skip the fish altogether? Unfortunately, only 2 to 3 species are allowed legally to be consumed in Europe (such as spirulina) and the biggest obstacle to using them is the law. 

How can we then best produce these algae? 

There are various methods, all of which require the need to capture light as efficiently as possible. From using open ponds, bubble columns, flat panels and photobioreactors, these different methods are often land, energy, water and capital intensive. Hence, LGEM has developed the Wave, which uses the lowest demand of energy and paired together with automation, this results in a super efficient method of converting light to energy. 

To end off this recap, someone quipped, “Designers give a form to something that was an idea.” Hence, we hope that this coming together of artists, biodesigners, engineers and entrepreneurs at the Biodesign Night has provided you with a platform for your ideation spark on directly/indirectly using solar to produce alternative forms of energy and light!