After their 2011 success in showcasing the use of plants as biological solar panels, a team from the Departments of Plant Sciences and Biochemistry are bringing their latest living creation to the Cambridge Science Festival this weekend.

When Fabienne Felder approached us, it felt like a good opportunity to create a working model that could show how far we have come in the development of this technology

Ross Dennis

Moss FM, which harnesses plant photosynthesis to power a radio for a short time, is the result of a collaboration between plant scientist Ross Dennis, biochemist Dr Paolo Bombelli and a designer, Fabienne Felder, who has a passion for ‘biophilic design’ inspired by the natural world.

When a plant photosynthesises, energy from the sun is used to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds that the plant needs to grow. Some of the compounds – such as carbohydrates, proteins and lipids – are leached into the soil where they are broken down by bacteria, which in turn release by-products as part of the process. One of these by-products happens to be electrons, which can be captured by conductive fibres in the soil. It is this that is the key to how this emerging technology, known as biophotovoltaics (BPV), could turn out to be an important addition to the world of renewable energy, making the most of naturally produced energy that would otherwise be wasted.

Fabienne Felder had heard about the Moss Table, the team’s first attempt to showcase this technology by “plugging” large quantities of moss into a table with a built-in lamp, and was keen to work with them.

“The Moss Table was a beautiful design, created by Alex Driver and Carlos Peralta from the Institute for Manufacturing, but it was a concept product, showing how BPV technology could be used in the future. It didn’t produce enough energy actually to power the light, although we were able to run a digital clock from it. When Fabienne approached us, it felt like a good opportunity to create a working model that could show how far we have come in the development of this technology”, said Dennis, whose research in the Department of Plant Sciences into the evolution of early land plants focuses particularly on moss.

Whereas in the Moss Table the designers sought a streamlined look, Felder wanted to ensure that the process of how BPV works would be totally transparent to the viewer, and so she designed Moss FM as a functional product where everything is on show.

“There is still a long way to go in developing BPV to the point where it could be used in commercial products. For now, we are focussing on the science – improving the transport of electrons and making sure we optimise the energy output. We are hoping in the next five to ten years to be able to achieve an output that is at least as good as current biofuels”,  Dr Bombelli, of the Department of Biochemistry, explained.

Paolo Bombelli and Ross Dennis will be taking their moss-powered technology to the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April, and to Cambridge’s Botanic Garden later this year at the Festival of Plants, where they will be building a living green wall that they hope will produce enough electricity to charge a mobile phone. 

To see Moss FM in action, and to find out more from the researchers themselves,  come along to the Institute of Manufacturing on Saturday 22 March from 1 to 5pm

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