Biophotovoltaics: Design in Science at Designersblock 2011

August 15, 2011

Designers are collaborating with scientists at Cambridge University on cutting edge research aimed at developing Biophotovoltaic technology. Biophotovoltaic (BPV) devices generate renewable energy and other useful by-products from the photosynthesis of living organisms such as algae or moss.

The development of BPV technology is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and involves collaboration between the departments of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, Plant Science and Biochemistry at Cambridge, and the Chemistry department at Bath University. Doctor Adrian Fisher, Professor Alison Smith and Professor Chris Howe have led this research.

A separate research project called Design in Science, also funded by the EPSRC and led by Dr James Moultrie, is being conducted at Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing. Its aim is to explore how designers can play a role in early stage scientific research.
The teams working on these projects have joined forces to bring together design and science to produce a table incorporating BPV technology. The purpose of the table is to demonstrate through a familiar domestic object, that this early stage technology has potential applications in everyday aspects of our lives. The table will be exhibited at Designersblock as part of the London Design Festival in September.

A visualisation of the moss table

Biophotovoltaic technology is at an early stage of development, but scientists estimate that low cost BPV devices are likely to become competitive alternatives to conventional silicon-based solar panels in the next 5-10 years. The long term target is to produce economical devices with low manufacturing costs and excellent energy conversion efficiency.

As part of their collaborative project, scientist Paolo Bombelli and his colleagues worked with designers Alex Driver and Carlos Peralta to produce a range of future product concepts for BPV technology. These included an array of algae solar panels for domestic use, a near shore generator that harvests desalinated water and the moss table.

An array of Biophotovoltaic solar panels

A floating Biophotovoltaic Generator, designed to harvest desalinated water

A Biophotovoltaic power station consisting of algae-coated ‘lily pads’

The team also conceptualised an off-shore power station consisting of several giant floating ‘lily pads’ coated in algae. This power output per unit area of a BPV power station would ideally match that of an equivalently sized offshore wind farm (5-6 watts per metre square), which would be enough to exploit the technology commercially. Such a power station would even generate energy during the night as a result of excess electrons being stored inside the algal cells during daylight hours. They also visualised a forest of solar collecting masts which could be located inland, and which would draw water either from the ground or from rainfall to keep the algae alive, as illustrated below.

Biophotovoltaic masts that capture rain water to feed the algae

A forest of algae-coated masts that draw water from underground using wind-energy

Although BPV technology may require years of development to achieve these applications, they have helped the scientific team to communicate the potential of their technology to commercial partners and investors, and have helped to steer the research in new directions.

Come to the show to learn more about this project.Register here for free entry to Designersblock London 2011.