Bio-light runs off luminous bacteria

Sensemaking / Bio-light runs off luminous bacteria

Philips is designing applications for bioluminescence, using light-emitting bugs instead of conventional bulbs. Potential uses for this technology range from safety strips along stairs to simple park lighting.

13 Apr 2012

Philips is designing applications for bioluminescence, using light-emitting bugs instead of conventional bulbs. Potential uses for this technology range from safety strips along stairs to simple park lighting.

Don't burn the methane from that slurry: feed it to luminous bugs. They could repay their meal ticket by providing mood lighting in your kitchen.

That's the dreamlike scenario lit up by new thinking at Philips, where the R&D team is focusing on the possibilities of bioluminescence. Most commonly associated with fireflies, jellyfish and phosphorescent marine life, this natural process is peculiar to a select group of organisms endowed with a devilish molecule called luciferin. It reacts when oxidised by an enzyme known as luciferase, giving a low intensity and completely wireless light. It's cool light, too, without all the waste heat you get with incandescence.

Philips is showing a suitably whole systems approach with its 'bio-light' design concept. The process is put to work within a so-called 'microbial kitchen' setting where the bacteria are bred in situ – ever so much more manageable than going jellyfish-hunting whenever you need a light. According to Philips' concept, a composting digester sitting under the sink turns food leftovers and toilet waste into methane. This is lunch for the bioluminescent bacteria, piped through a spaghetti-like system of silicon tubes to their home in an array of 'light bulbs', built into a wall-hanging frame.

But don't go looking for this in the shops any time soon. We're right at the early stage when it comes to harnessing bioluminescence. And using it to light our living space might be barking up the wrong tree. It could be better suited to luminous strips on the edge of the stairs and in road markings, or even to add a touch of night-time magic to parks – a concept that won a Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction in 2011.

Think, though, about the sensitive environments where these bugs might just be in their element – as living luminous biosensors inside our own bodies, perhaps, shedding light on our health. - Roger East

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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