|A glow in the night. Glowee|
Bacteria may light up the future. Glowee, a start-up company based in Paris, France, is developing bioluminescent lights to illuminate shop fronts and street signs.
After a successful demo in December, Glowee has launched its first product – a bacteria-powered light that glows for three days. The company is now working on lights that will glow for a month or more.
“Our goal is to change the way we produce and use light,” says Glowee founder Sandra Rey. “We want to offer a global solution that will reduce the 19 per cent of electricity consumption used to produce light.”
The lights are made by filling small transparent cases with a gel that contains bioluminescent bacteria. Glowee uses a bacterium called Aliivibrio fischeri, which gives marine animals such as the Hawaiian bobtail squid the ability to glow with a blue-green light. The gel provides nutrients that keep the bacteria alive.
At first, the lights only worked for a few seconds. But by tweaking the consistency of the gel so it delivers nutrients more efficiently, the team has been able to extend their lifespan to three days.
Bioluminescent lights are not new. But Glowee is one of the first companies to develop a commercial product, which is initially being marketed to shops. In France, retailers are not allowed to light their shop windows between 1 am and 7 am to limit light pollution and energy consumption. The softly glowing bacterial lights – about as bright as night lights – provide a way to get around the ban.
Glowee wants to use them for other purposes too, including decorative lighting, building exteriors and street signs – as well as providing lighting in places with no power cables, such as parks.
ERDF, a largely state-owned utility company that manages 95 per cent of France’s electricity network, is among the backers of Glowee’s recent crowdfunding campaign. “Glowee is not meant to replace electric light; it offers different possibilities,” says Rey.
The business case
But how feasible is the idea in the long run? Edith Widder at the Ocean Research & Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, Florida, thinks that the costs of producing and maintaining large numbers of bioluminescent bacteria in suitable environmental conditions are too high for most commercial lighting needs.
To get the bacteria to continue working for more than a few days requires adding extra nutrients and removing waste products, she says. “If you do the math, it doesn’t make sense, especially when you factor in how incredibly efficient LED lighting has become.”
But Glowee is undeterred. Having adjusted the make-up of its gel, it is now genetically engineering the bacteria. Rey says her team is developing a molecular switch that will activate the bioluminescence only at night. This will let the bacteria save energy during the day and make the nutrients last longer.
The team also plans to make the bacteria glow brighter and survive temperature fluctuations of up to 20 °C. Rey says the company will launch a commercial product in 2017 that lasts a month.
Solutions exist in nature, says Rey. “Now that we have the tools to copy them, we can build far more sustainable processes and products.”
ORIGINAL: New Scientist
26 February 2016