Self Initiated Research Investigation

What might nanotechnology mean for the future of sustainable energy production?

The drive for alternative energy sources in response to dwindling fossil fuel reserves has led to many offerings in so called ‘green’ energy. However, such is man’s dependency on fossil fuels that no single product can be considered the definitive answer to our growing energy demands. As such, our future energy needs will be met by various sources, not least by tapping into the energy capacity of our most immediate, natural surroundings.

As advances in nanotechnology lead to more energy efficient products, for example, developments in LED technology, small-scale, natural energy resources such as plant life and algae become attractive sources of energy. It will become not just economically appealing, but essential to create a new symbiosis between man, nature and technology.

Algae has long been cited as the next super fuel due to its high concentration of lipid oils (contributing half of algae’s composition by weight). Scientists have studied this oil for decades as the key ingredient in the production of biodiesel, creating a fuel that burns cleaner and more efficiently than the petroleum it was born to replace. However, almost three-quarters of the sunlight energy absorbed by algae is lost before it can be turned into the sugars or starches used to make biofuels. In 2010, scientists from Yansei and Stanford University pioneered a technique by where 30-nanometre wide gold electrodes were inserted into the photosynthesising organs – chloroplasts – of algal cells, thus managing to draw a small electrical current from algae during photosynthesis. In the future it may become possible to power small electrical devices by stealing electrons from photosynthesising algae. Latro is a critical design concept contemplating this potential future market.

Latro (meaning thief in latin) incorporates both the natural energy potential of algae and the functionality of a hanging lamp into its design. Synthesising both nature and technology in one form, Latro is a living, breathing product. Algae are incredibly easy to cultivate, requiring only sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water, thus offering a remarkably simple way of producing energy. Breathing into the handle of the lamp provides the algae with CO 2, whilst the side spout allows the addition of more water and release of oxygen. Placing the lamp outside in the daylight, the algae use sunlight to synthesise foods from carbon dioxide and water. A light sensor monitors the light intensity, only permitting the leeching of electrons when the lux level passes the threshold. This way, algae can be tapped for electricity during photosynthesis without leaving the algae malnourished. The energy is subsequently stored in a battery ready to be called upon during hours of darkness. Owners of Latro are required to treat the algae much like a pet – feeding and caring for the algae rewarding them with light.

Latro: Algae Powered Lamp

Project Team

Thanks To
Prof. Dr. Wim J Vredenberg, Professor of Plant Physiology, Laboratory of Plant Physiology, Wageningen University

Animation by James Francis