Plant power

Us being unable to find a way to live in harmony with nature, will eventually destroy our planet. This is Rotterdam designer Ermi van Oers’ strong conviction. To change the odds she invented Living Light, a lamp powered by plants.

Her small office near Rotterdam Marconiplein is a green oasis. There are plants in all shapes and sizes. Arranged on a handful of desks, in window sills, on the floor. You could even call it a laboratory. That’s because Van Oers (27) is currently trying to find the ideal plant to go with the microbial fuel cell she’s using. In this fuel cell, microorganisms produce electrons through the decomposition of organic materials. It is a modest power source, just enough to illuminate a few LEDs.

The research – which will probably take six months to complete – is done in close collaboration with Wageningen partner Plant-e. This university spin-off patented a specific technique by which plants are able to generate electricity. Van Oers started to collaborate with its scientists as part of her thesis research, which was three years ago, while studying product design at the Willem de Kooning Academie in Rotterdam. This is where she became enthusiastic about sustainable design, which later on evolved into bio design.

Her interest was triggered by a project she carried out with a fellow student. They researched their immediate surroundings and stumbled upon waste flows. ‘We were wondering if we could do something useful with it, such as using the heat from a bakery or the sludge in the sewer’, says van Oers. They also stumbled upon academic papers of University of Bristol researchers who had succeeded in generating energy from urine with a microbial fuel cell. It turned out to be the prelude to her current research. ‘I strongly believe that technology can develop so much faster by making it functional and having it look good’, she argues.

A helping professor

It took a while for her to be taken seriously by the scientific community .‘Scientists are very interested in conducting lab research and publishing academic articles. Making real products isn’t their goal’, says Van Oers. Eventually, one Dutch professor was willing to lend a hand. He gave her and her fellow student materials to build a microbial fuel cell. After plenty of trial and error, they came up with a floating light. It generated energy from bacteria in the river Nieuwe Maas. The small lamp, and the media attention it attracted, opened many doors. ‘It was the starting point of a bigger dream about powering the planet in a friendly, non-polluting way.’ A dream she would soon chase after alone, since her fellow student took a different path.

Over the past three years Van Oers has worked tirelessly on her Living Light concept. She stuck with light because of its – what she calls – ‘poetic’ qualities. We simply can’t live without it. On the other hand, we are not at all appreciative of it, she says. ‘By linking light to living plants, we ensure that people will take good care of them. If not, you are left in the dark.’ To strengthen the bond, a Living Light is activated by gently touching its leaves.

 

First batch

Developing the glass casing, optimizing the fuel cell, selecting suitable plants, making all the electronics work, designing a user-friendly product; it all proved to be quite challenging. It has taken her small team of industrial designers and soft- and hardware developers longer than expected. Van Oers: ‘Before we send our first order, we want to make sure that everything works. It’s so easy for something to go wrong. Ultimately, we work with nature.’ Apart from that, the product’s appearance is an absolute priority, she says. ‘People pay 1500 euros for the design, the technology and the underlying story. They see it as an art object.’

Van Oers wants to hit the market with a first batch of fifty Living Lights in the foreseeable future. They will only be send to customers in the Netherlands. ‘We want to have control. If something happens, we can easily hop into a car and go repair it.’ Her pre-sale orders have reached two thousand lights. People and companies from all over the world have shown interest. But Van Oers doesn’t rush things. Every detail has to be right.

Lighting up public parks

The designer is very pleased that the Rotterdam people she collaborates with do so on a voluntary basis. They are all shareholders. What connects them are their common goals, she says. An important one is wanting to leave the world in a better state than in which they found it. The team also has big dreams. ‘Imagine producing electricity in places where that is normally impossible. For example, giving the Amazon region economic value by turning it into a eco friendly power plant, instead of illegal logging and poaching.’

Besides working on the Living Light lamp, Van Oers and Plant-e want to illuminate public parks by using the same microbial fuel cell technique. The Hague has already got such an 8 m2 patch in its Zuiderpark. When people walk by, small LEDs light up in between the plants. The city of Rotterdam has plans for a larger location. The lighting of parks is a new product, as yet without a name. It is developed much faster than her Living Light, says Van Oers. ‘More plants are producing energy at the same time, in contrast to a single plant in a Living Light.’ Another advantage: these are their first paid orders. And such, their dependence on prize money to keep their quest going, decreases.

Ambitions

Although Living Light is a work in progress, Van Oers is not afraid to start new projects. She wants to expand her collection. One ambition is to develop the floating lamp she came up with during her studies. ‘I hope that with this technology, port basins, rivers, lakes and riverbanks can become power plants.’ The microbial fuel cell doesn’t necessarily have to be part of her future plans. ‘Other energy forms could be alternatives. I primarily see myself as someone who bridges the gap between sustainable technologies and our daily lives.’