Introducing Class 1: Living Light
Words by Kristina Foster
Photos by Marie Wanders
In our third edition of Class 1 interviews we learn about the magical possibilities of plant electricity with Ermi van Oers and her product, Living Light, a lamp that harvests its energy through bacteria in the soil.
You get what you give with plants. Give them water and a nice spot next to the window and you’ll get a flourishing green friend that also has the added value of cleaning the air your home. It’s a circular relationship, but one that’s sometimes neglected because the things that plants do for us aren’t always visible to the naked eye. But what if the wellbeing of your plant could be more visually represented as it provided you with one of life’s most essential comforts: light. Ermi van Oers combines green technology with product design to bring this concept to life with Living Light, a stunning invention based on this exchange of light for care as the lamp harvests energy through the photosynthesising process of a plant. Her design is the first step towards a future where plants will become an integral part of our energy system.
How did you become interested in product design?
I became a product designer because I love making things that make people happy. I feel product design provides us with the opportunity to make life better, easier and more enjoyable. It’s not always about making things beautiful but giving a higher value to everyday things. While studying at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, I worked at a Maker Space that helped people get into new technology such as 3D printing and electronics. I wanted to find a way to use this new technology in my work.
How did you do this?
At university I did my minor in sustainability. It was then that I became very interested in biodesign; I think that it’s really important to incorporate more natural processes into our daily lives so that we can improve our climate and use existing resources more responsibly. I was fascinated by the way that nature works on a circular nutritional system, as opposed to humans, who work on a much more linear system. For example, domestic wastewater is full of useful elements that we don’t use at all. I saw it as a challenge to make something from this waste. I thought: how could we make domestic waste, something that people find disgusting, valuable again? I then came across some scientists in Bristol who were researching how to harvest energy from microbial fuel cells in urine. My classmate and I really wanted to use this research in our project; we ended up creating a floating lamp that harvested its energy from polluted water.
So you had the basis for a lamp that ran on microbial energy. When did you decide to bring plants into it?
I really wanted to develop this initial idea in my graduation project. Discovering how difficult it was to deal with all the research and technology on my own, I reached out to scientists around the world who were working with microbial energy. I ended up collaborating with Plant-e, a research group from Wageningen, the Netherlands, that focuses on applying microbial fuel cell technology to plants. So I approached my graduation project with the same kind of concept as the wastewater in my minor project, but this time with plants. You see, the soil contains a lot of bacteria that break down organic compounds produced when a plant photosynthesises. This process releases electrons which can be used to generate electricity and light.
People are so surprised at how much power there is in a plant.
How easy was it to find scientists who wanted to collaborate with you on your project?
I found it quite difficult at first because many of the scientists I contacted were so focused on publishing their own research and had no plans to create something out of their findings. Since Plant-e really wanted to get their technology closer to consumers, they were really happy to work together. It was great to find people open to this kind of collaboration and who wanted to get their research out of the lab and into people’s homes.
So, do you see product design as a way of making green technology more commercially relevant?
Absolutely. There are so many things happening in laboratories around the world that we don’t know about. If you combine this knowledge with creativity and product design, you can come up with some really innovative ideas. Often this knowledge is contained in these labs until it is completely perfected, but I think this development would go much quicker if we got it out of the lab, tested it and made people enthusiastic about it.
When did you decide to develop your graduation project for the consumer market?
After I graduated, I joined the creative collective We umbrella. I brought my graduation project prototype with me and we all thought, hey let’s develop this together and apply to Let it Grow’s Incubation Programme. We all work in complementary disciplines, I focus on the creative concept, Eva van der Velde is an Industrial Designer, Marco van Noord is the electronics expert and Nick de Ronde is the Interaction and Web developer.
You said that you love designing products that make people happy – how does Living Light do that?
People are so surprised at how much power there is in a plant. It brings people closer to plants and asks them to take better care of them. What I found really interesting about this project is this interdependence between plant and person: if you take better care of your plants, you will get more energy back. Light makes this a visual experience. If you notice that your light is less strong, you will check up on your plant and make sure it’s doing okay.
What’s your vision for Living Light – where do see your technology going in the future?
With Living Light, I really wanted to bring a new source of energy to people’s homes. I think that in the future, our households will be filled and powered by plants. Green walls and rooftops will be part of our energy system. I see Living Light as the first step towards that future. I hope that one day, we will be able to walk through parks lit up by energy harvested from the plants. Developing this technology is very important because it’s essential that we find other sources of energy and not be completely dependant on one.