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Energy Autonomous Devices

Developing our research from 'Domestic Gubbins', these were a set of smart concept devices designed to embed 'energy autonomy' within the home.

Technology is often hailed as a panacea, capable of solving all our environmental problems at a stroke – from widespread energy inefficiency and an over-reliance on fossil fuels, through to the looming threat of runaway climate change.

With solar arrays in the Sahara, carbon capture and storage, and continent-spanning emission trading schemes, many of the most persuasive proposals have operated on the scale of the macro. We wondered if there might be another way to tackle the energy question.

Instead of planning for energy autonomy at a national or regional level, what if we took these technologies and adapted them to a suburban or domestic context?

Our starting point was the microbial fuel cell (MFC), a technology that produces electrical charge from the catabolic reduction of organic material by a microbial substrate. This organic material could be a simple compound, such as sugar, or fruit, vegetables, or even insects. Playing with the idea of the MFC, we designed two concept devices for domestic use.

Much as products with embedded sensors are framed as 'smart' or 'intelligent'  capable of perceiving and acting on data from their environment – these energy-autonomous devices possessed a unique capacity for 'life' and 'death'. We hoped they would stimulate thought and conversation about the relationship between processes of artificial digestion, the autonomous production of electricity, and our own practices of domestic power consumption.

1. Sugar Power

When fed, the micro-organism rhodoferax ferrireducens generates an electrical current, as electrons freed in the metabolic process accumulate on an electrode in the fuel cell. These designs incorporate the current-producing microbes, with the insertion of carbon electrodes producing a charge.

Unlike the extension cable or inert AA battery, these sugar artefacts degrade over time, changing shape as the microbes metabolise the sugar. Such objects raise questions about how we might interact with power sources that contain living microbes, but possess a fixed life span.

357 Experiments of a Sugar-powered Light source using sugar cubes.

358 A prototyping factor where we experimented with various techniques to build the most robust sugar objects.

359 A large sugar plug with graphite rods that would allow the fuel cells to 'breathe'. Edible power with a limited life span.
361 And finally...a bespoke sugar powered charger for your laptop!
How the 'sugar lamp' might work in a domestic context: 

2. The Living Radio

'My radio prefers bacon.'

Moving away from the limited lifespan of our sugar-based cells, the energy-autonomous radio is designed to run on cells that can last indefinitely, providing they are fed with organic material. Though the microbial substrate will break down most organic matter, including complex materials, it is gradually conditioned to operate most efficiently with specific energy sources — a conditioning related, in part, to the history of materials with which the cells have been supplied.

As such, the radio's life-cycle and performance are interleaved with its usage patterns, each extending well beyond the user's immediate interactions.

362 Renderings of a radio that would be big enough to produce power from Microbial Fuel Cells

364 The built 'radio', with a shiny, clean front side.

365 The back of the radio is messy, exposing the microbial fuel cells. The waste from the radio is fed into the plants.

A couple learns to live with their new 'living radio':

366 A detailed (fictional) instruction manual for the radio, showing the nature of organic waste and the energy it produces.

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Along with the other components of the 'Rethinking Machine Intelligence' research strand, this project is documented further in our book, Objects Incognito.

367 Objects Incognito: A book documenting the full project process.

368 Exhibiting the project at Microsoft Research Cambridge.