Life and Death in Energy Autonomous Devices
Anab Jain and Alex Taylor, Microsoft Research, Cambridge, 2006-2008

'Life and Death in Energy Autonomous Devices' is a conceptual design project with a range of artefacts and media designed to encourage questions and debate around the developments in energy autonomous systems and their use, specifically looking at the microbial fuel cell technology. (research fuelled by the Ecobot, developed by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory)

Sugar Power:

A micro-organism, ‘Rhodoferax ferrireducens’, when fed on metabolized sugar, produces a current
as the electrons freed in the process accumulate on an electrode in the fuel cell. Often described as iron-breathing, it uses iron or graphite for metabolic energy just as humans use oxygen to burn food.

Based on this principle, we have designed a series of power-generating objects made of sugar, containing these microbes at their core. Our objective here is to envisage sugar powered objects that might expose the slow and gradual breakdown of organic material using a microbial system and, in doing so, reveal the relationship between the processes of artificial digestion, the autonomous production of electricity and our own practices of power consumption.

Visually depicting the decay of objects from within, they invite us to examine our interactions with objects that have a definite function—electricity output—but at the same time ‘live’ and ‘die’, in a manner of speaking, independently of us. In their design, the objects thus give special emphasis to their slowly changing nature as they are used.

The series of objects shown here range from simple lamps and plugs to more complex fractal-like organic shapes.


This film depicts a possible scenario of use in the future.

Living Radio:
Another of our designs similarly builds on some of the underlying capabilities of microbial fuel cells. In this case, however, we have attempted to consider the production of electricity by incorporating the cells into a radio appliance. Unlike the sugar-based cells, the radio is designed to run on cells that will last indefinitely, so long as they are supplied with organic material. This promised longevity of power supply is one of the distinctive features of this microbial fuel cell technology. Thus the radio’s life cycle and performance interleaves with its patterns of use; the timeframe of use extends across time, expanding well beyond the immediate interactions one has with it.

This film depicts a scenario of use in the future, where a couple have recently bought the radio, and are attempting to find ways of beginning to live with it.