Living lamp harnesses the power of bacteria


A Dutch designer and Flemish scientists have joined forces to create a lamp that’s powered by bacteria

Let there be light

With the help of researchers from Ghent University’s bioscience engineering faculty, Dutch designer Teresa van Dongen has created a lamp that doesn’t require a plug or battery. Instead, it’s powered by bacteria.

Van Dongen creates design innovations based on alternative and natural energy sources, drawing inspiration from nature and science. She has a background in biology herself, but for her Spark of Life lamp she teamed up with Ghent researchers Korneel Rabaey, Jan Arends and Kristof Verbeeck, who provided her with the right mix of bacteria to power the plant.

The lamp (pictured) is an application of the microbial fuel cell technology that the university is working on, which allows certain bacteria to produce electric power from organic material like sugar, acetic acid  or wastewater.

The researchers developed a bacterial fluid that is integrated in the lamp. The bacterial community in this fluid is dominated by Geobacter bacteria, but is diverse enough to deal with differences in conditions such as a change in temperature. The selected organisms are electrochemically active bacteria that can emit small electrons in their metabolism, thus producing electric current. 

Love your lamp

The lamp consists of four compartments with one special electrode, provided by the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito), in each compartment. The electrodes collect the electrons, powering four small lights. The light is not strong, but is ideal as mood lighting.

To emit light, the bacteria need food: one teaspoon of acetic acid about every three weeks. The food can simply be added to the bacterial fluid inside each of the lamp’s four compartments.

With this small amount of nourishment, the lamp works 24/7. It doesn’t currently have a switch, but in any case, the lamp can’t be switched off for long, as the bacteria need to stay active to live.

This technology will never be a main way of producing energy, but it can be a sustainable alternative in remote places where replacing batteries is costly

- Professor Korneel Rabaey

Van Dongen imagines that having to feed it could result in a closer relationship between the lamp and its user. The vessel needs to be cleaned in the dishwasher every few months. Refilling is a matter of filling it up with tap water, adding salt, vitamins and acetic acid. The bacteria remain in the electrode, waiting for the clean vessel to return.

The project won a grant from the Netherlands’ Keep an Eye Foundation, with which Van Dongen plans to develop Spark of Life into a consumer-friendly product.

“This kind of microbial fuel cell technology will never be a main way of producing energy, but it can be a sustainable alternative for batteries in remote places where replacing batteries is costly,” says professor Korneel Rabaey. “We could use bacteria from wastewater to power lamps in a toilet in a national park, for example.”

The researchers are currently applying the microbial fuel cell technology mainly to make production processes more sustainable.

Photo: Hans Boddeke