Currently on display at the Milan Furniture Fair, the Moss Table by Biophotovoltaics generates electricity by using the natural light-conversion process of plants.
Developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, bio-photovoltaic technology uses the excess energy produced during the photosynthesis process.
At the moment, the technology is still in its early stages; although the table looks impressive, the lamp is not powered by the moss; however, enough electricity is produced to power a small digital clock. According to designers Alex Driver and Carlos Peralta, the table produces 520 Joules of electricity per day; to put that in perspective, the average laptop consumes 25J per second.
It's not what it can do yet, but how it's generated — and what it might do one day — that makes bio-photovoltaic energy so intriguing.
A diagram demonstrating how bio-photovoltaic technology extracts electricity from plants.
According to Biophotovoltaics:
Photosynthesis is a process by which plants and algae convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into organic compounds using energy from sunlight. The plants use these organic compounds (like carbohydrates, proteins and lipids) to grow. When the moss photosynthesises, it releases some of these organic compounds into the soil, which contains bacteria. The bacteria break down these organic compounds, which they need to survive, liberating by-products that include electrons. These electrons are captured by conductive fibres inside the Moss Table and put to use. In this way, the devices harness energy which would otherwise be wasted. This is achieved using an array of 112 'moss pots', which are bio-electrochemical devices. This means that they convert chemical energy into electrical energy using biological material. Each one generates a potential of about 0.4-0.6V, and a current of 5 - 10µA.
This is not the first exploration of the technology, however; algae, for example, wastes three quarters of the sunlight energy it absorbs, and is very fast-growing. If we could harness that wasted energy, then we'd have a clean source of energy that requires very little maintenance.
Bio-photovoltaic generators made from algae.
And it wouldn't be limited to coffee tables, either. According to Peralta, potential applications include rooftop solar panels made from algae — or ocean-based power stations with giant lily pad-shaped algae generators mounted on floating buoys.
That's still a while off, though; in the meantime, Biophotovoltaics is hoping to spread awareness about the technology to a wider audience as part of a wider Design in Science initiative via the University of Cambridge.