Moss FM

Moss FM

  • Moss FM
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    Moss FM
  • Project set off: moss surface
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    Project set off: moss surface
  • Hydroponics and composite experiments
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    Hydroponics and composite experiments
  • Moss beauty shot
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    Moss beauty shot
  • Exploration of scenarios
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    Exploration of scenarios
  • Photo-MFC iteration, training, and capacitor
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    Photo-MFC iteration, training, and capacitor
  • Final Photo-MFC
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    Final Photo-MFC
  • Visual inspiration for radio
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    Visual inspiration for radio
  • Visual exploration
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    Visual exploration
  • Final drafts and mock-up
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    Final drafts and mock-up
Moss FM
Project Subtitle

The world’s first plant-powered radio using moss Photo Microbial Fuel cells.

The Inspiration

Moss FM is the result of research into biophilic technologies and processes. Biophilic design is a niche that does not seek to imitate nature (biomimicry), but to actively employ it to manufacture, or in this case, run objects without harming the natural organism in use.

It all started with a project brief related to sustainability. I wondered, whether I could power an object much as plants powered themselves - by converting substances in the object's environment into energy and in an ideal case clean the air at the same time. As research led me deeper into the subject area, it turned out that the answer was quite simply to use actual plants and to deploy their ability to produce electrons as part of their photosynthetic process.

On a societal level I was curious to find out, whether a literal "power plant" would sensitise people to our high levels of energy consumption, as they'd have to look after the plant to keep it alive.

Some initial concepts were drawn up based on a speculative design that came out of the University of Cambridge, which illustrated the concept of using moss power, but did not yet work. The scientists involved in that project had previously powered extremely low-consumption gadgets, such as LCDs, with moss. As fate would have it, I eventually met with the scientists and we decided to embark on a journey together, trying to power something more substantial.

Working with moss then opened a whole new world to a plant that is misunderstood and undervalued by most people, but actually features a fantastic range of beneficial properties and applications throughout history. So in parallel, I set out on a mission to promote mosses and pitch them as a valid material for design.

Stages of Development

The first stage was originally aimed at developing a surface, an electricity-generating moss sheet. This goal stemmed from a concept to clad extreme spaces in moss. It was originally illustrated on air craft cabins, where moss could counteract all kinds of negative aspects of being a passenger in a small room with extremely dry air and minimum oxygen. The moss would also provide a calming tactile experience for passengers with flight anxiety and at the same time, of course, power some of the inflight gadgets. This stage involved a lot of experimentation with mosses, growing them hydroponically onto various conductive substrates.

Due to time (mosses grow very slowly) and budget restrictions the focus of the project then changed, but also became technically more ambitious, as I later changed the goal to powering an object that would require more electricity than an LCD. I considered charging a mobile phone, but eventually a radio was chosen as this would provide aural feedback as opposed to the predominately visual objects that had previously been powered.

The radios I tested required current in the region of several hundred times more microamps than an LCD. With current levels of performance of Photo-MFCs this would have required a few square meters of moss to power a radio continuously and to balance out variability in the cells' output. An important stage was therefore to figure out how this issue could be solved. I charged some capacitors with the moss cells, which looked promising initially, but ultimately failed. At a later stage, after the radio had already been finished, we then charged an empty rechargeable battery with our moss and finally got the radio working. However, a prolonged period of uncertainty led to the projection of several scenarios in which the final result might have been another speculative design, as it was extremely unclear, whether I would manage to develop a working radio within the given time frame.

The radio design is a proof of concept / first prototype. The Photo-MFCs, however, went through three iteration stages as well as "training" to increase the flow of current, each time improving their efficiency and stability. Due to the still experimental stage of the technology (evident in its humble performance), the radio itself was designed to look like an experiment, taking strong visual cues from the world of biochemistry in which Photo-MFCs reside.

The design has not been commercialised. But high media attention got us in contact with a number of interested parties, which might enable us to drive the technology further in a commercially viable direction.

The Function

Technically, a Photo-MFC uses a plant like a biological solar panel. These bioelectrochemical devices take advantage of photosynthetic organisms and use them to extract electrons, protons, and oxygen from water. They are capable of harnessing solar energy and turning it into electrical current with the help of bacteria, which occur naturally in the organic material used. This is a digestive process, which furthermore enables the extraction of electrons even in the absence of light. 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.

The devices currently extract only about 0.1% of potential electrons - the challenge of future research lies in the balance between increasing efficiency, yet not removing too much of the electrons to harm the plants. Mosses are particularly suited in this case as they are slow growers and therefore convert less of their electrons into sugar than faster growing plants, leaving us more to harness.

With Moss FM I managed to achieve the goal of powering a more substantial object, leading the way to possibly one day having plant-powered objects in our homes. Experimentation with materials has led to a more stable Photo-MFCs and I was able to find a solution to bridge variations in cell output. We managed to prove that we could trickle-charge standard rechargeable batteries with our moss cells, which one day might have real field application.

In a wider context, Moss FM has indeed achieved to boost mosses, as most people react very favourably to what they had previously perceived to be an insignificant plant. Most audiences also seem taken by the idea of caring for a green power generator.

Awards

Winner 2014 Cambridge Climate & Sustainability Forum Photography Competition
Winner 2013 e-Luminate Forum: Energy & Lighting Showcase