Turning Moss into a Living Power Plant
Are plants the energy source of tomorrow? A promising proof-of-concept suggests this might be possible. Read More
Did you know...
that the moss that grows in your driveway or backyard can be used to generate electricity? Like the rest of the world, you probably didn't. But now science has found a way to harness the power of biophotovoltaics.
Moss FM is the world's first plant-powered radio. It was developed by the Swiss creative strategist and designer Fabienne Felder, with support from biochemist Dr. Paolo Bombelli and plant scientist Ross Dennis from the University of Cambridge. Built mostly from discarded materials, the radio runs entirely on energy produced by moss.
During photosynthesis, plants create surplus protons and electrons. "Our theory was that mosses convert fewer of them into sugars for growth, as they are slow and low growing, so we might have some 'excess'," explains Fabienne. Together with the scientists from Cambridge, she has found out how to tap into and harness that surplus energy.
The 10 pots of moss located in Cambridge produce about 25 microampere at 4.5 volts, enough to charge a battery that allows Moss FM to run for a couple of minutes, or to continuously power a small LCD. To operate the radio 24/7, 10 m² of moss would be required. Obviously, the technology is still in its infancy.
A promising start
"At the moment we are only using about 0.1% of moss's energy", Fabienne tells us. Nevertheless Moss FM is already an impressive proof-of-concept. And maybe one day the 177,000 hectares of agricultural area used in Europe may not only provide crops, but also electricity.
"People said solar could never compete with other power sources – now look at it!"
"We’re not quite sure yet why we are so inefficient. Whether it's the type of material we use or that some 'resources' get lost elsewhere in the process, we just don’t know. It's important to bear in mind that the photosynthetic process is still only rudimentarily understood by science." But now that it has been proven that moss can be used as a power source, Fabienne highlights the necessity for further exploring the capacity of plants to produce energy. "People said solar could never compete with other power sources - now look at it!"
When added up, the electricity that 10 pots of moss can produce is already sufficient to conserve a significant amount of energy. For example, if one in four Londoners used moss to charge their phones for two hours every other day, 42.5 million kWh could be saved. That is enough to meet the energy demand of a whole town – or to power your refrigerator for approximately the next 350,000 years. In addition, almost 40,000 fewer tons of CO2 would be emitted every year.
Moss: A real power plant
"In a design and architectural context, the most relevant benefits are insulation, as well as preservation of the artefacts mosses grow on. In an urban context, they also muffle noises, filter water and air, and they feature anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties," according to Fabienne, who for her MA in design envisioned a mossy, electricity-generating surface that might one day be used to cover aircraft cabins. She emphasizes the underappreciated nature of the plant.
But moss has many more astonishing qualities. It is a real survival artist, for example. When moss evolved from green algae about 450 million years ago, it was the first plant that managed to survive on solid ground. Unlike most other plants, it has no roots or flowers. Due to its anti-bacterial properties moss was used as a bandage in World War I. Since it can only grow in clean environments, it is a great indicator of pollution too. And yes, you can even use moss to create organic graffiti.
The team in Cambridge is determined to continue their research on biophotovoltaics. "We can assume that the technology will be applicable in a commercially viable form in five to ten years, mainly in emerging economies", says Fabienne.
Tests are currently being carried out in collaboration with the Zoological Society London. Hence, biophotovoltaics might find their first application in 'real life' as a power source for scientific equipment in the wild. Furthermore, a prototype for a living wall that generates electricity was built in Cambridge’s botanic garden. It incorporates thin film photovoltaic panels for better efficiency during the day and the plants continue working during the night.
With her deep love for all things moss, Fabienne is also very concerned with treating the plant in a respectful way. "As part of the current research, one of the questions to be addressed is how much energy we can capture without harming the plant. But I can’t answer that yet," she says.