Finding light in nature10 min read

Bioluminescence is nature’s flashlight – lighting the dark inner reaches of the sea from a chemical reaction within living organisms. Most people know bioluminescence from glowing blue waves in the ocean during summertime, but a Dutch-based designer is entirely transforming the way we consider forms of energy by developing sustainable light sources from the natural occurrence.

Teresa van Dongen’s background belongs in the two disciplines of science and design, which is how her bioluminescent light installation, Ambio, came to be. Ambio balances two weights and a glass tube half-filled with an artificial seawater medium containing carefully selected unique luminescent species. When the lamp is pushed, the weights continue to move and glow – the perfect example and visualisation of how to use nature as a source of energy.

Bioluminescence, Teresa van Dongen, Electroactive, light energy, bio design
A star of glass tubes holds a fluid with a special bacteria obtained from the skin of an octopus in the installation One Luminous Dot. Photographed by Hans Boddeke

Teresa is fascinated by microbial life and says there are so many man-made problems on this planet that could be solved by using micro-organisms the right way. “I want to show the possibilities and sometimes quite unknown innovations to a wider audience,” she reveals. She explains that the light you see in the ocean usually comes from micro-algae called dinoflagellates, organisms which react to movement in the water with a flash of light, a defence mechanism that helps them ward off predators. “At the shore, this can result in a spectacular light show.”

The microbes that Teresa uses in her work for Ambio, however, are different. These are much smaller bacteria, called Photobacterium Phosphoreum and can be found on the skin of many deep-sea creatures who use the light of these organisms for their own benefit. Teresa explains how she incorporated the organism into Ambio. “We isolated them from the skin of an octopus, who has a symbiosis – a kind of collaboration, with these organisms.” This relationship is due to the Photobacterium needing nutrients that the octopus can supply them; in return, the octopus uses the light to communicate in complex ways.

“The octopus can attract mates, distract predators and attract prey with flashes of light in its tentacles and on its head,” Teresa explains. She notes that she used these specific micro-organisms because they can, in return for nutrients and in reaction to oxygen, continuously emit light. “It is not a stress reaction, and they don’t need to recharge after every flash, like the micro-algae.”

After graduating in 2014, Teresa began investigating alternative forms of energy and light and researching the topic from several angles. “At some point, while investigating algae, I came across bioluminescence and was fascinated by the beauty of the light,” she articulates. Teresa quickly realised that, if she wanted to keep bioluminescent organisms lit in a human environment, she’d have to attach a pump to supply them with oxygen. “I thought it was a shame that I still needed an electric device to show the light. I wanted to show that it was a natural form of energy that just existed without the use of a plug.”

One afternoon, Teresa and her team were at the Delft University lab and switched a light off in one of the rooms which they kept the bioluminescent samples on a shaking plate. Teresa explains that the moment they turned the light off, they saw the samples were on. The illumination was caused by the movement of the plate and the oxygen in the air, mixing with the liquid which caused the samples to be continuously lit; “This is when I decided that I would work with bioluminescence and movement.”

During her research, Teresa realised that we sometimes don’t understand our planet very well. “If you take the oceans and deep-sea waters, we haven’t even seen half of it yet, literally!” She believes there are still so many sea creatures yet to be discovered, but  thanks to programs like BBC’s Blue Planet, bioluminescence is becoming more known. “At some point, deep-sea explorers had the brilliant idea to turn off their searchlights and started to discover a world of light deep down.” She comments that modern sensitive cameras can capture this dim light surprisingly well; “Before this, most people had no idea that deep-sea life could emit light one way or another.” Teresa explains that people are very surprised to hear about the amazing light tricks that sea creatures perform to enhance their chances of survival in the deep dark sea.

Finding Light in Nature
One Luminous Dot was inspired by countless deep-sea organisms, many of which have the extraordinary ability to emit light. Photographed by Hans Boddeke

After creating Ambio, Teresa was invited to make an installation proposal for the Eyes on Talens Award. She applied with a design for an immersive bioluminescent installation titled One Luminous Dot. “Upon entering the space you’d feel as though you were out in space, but once you knew what you were actually looking at, you’d realise that all the light was just coming directly from our own planet,” comments Teresa. “The one luminous dot out there, that hosts all these forms of life.”

Teresa worked with two master students at the Delft University of Technology on the installation. One of them graduated on the topic of bioluminescence, and both of them were experienced in isolating and working with the bacteria. The Photobacterium Phosphoreum that Teresa initially worked with was separated from the skin of an octopus that was freshly bought at the local fish market.

Teresa notes the unpredictable nature when working with bioluminescence; “The day of opening for One Luminous Dot, the bacteria were initially not emitting much light – with only small dots of light.” Teresa says this had never happened before. “Like magic, they only started to shine bright minutes before the French Minister of Culture arrived to see the installation!” The team put the lack of light down to the mixing of the culture and that the bacteria must have been clotted together so from then on, added a home-made shaking device to their lab. “I learned to accept the small risk that comes with working with living organisms,” remarks Teresa.

On the topic of sustainability concerning bioluminescence and light, Teresa says the actual implementation in daily life is very challenging with the wild-type (naturally occurring) Photobacterium. “These species are quite fragile and demanding in terms of daily care.” I choose to work with the wild-type only, implementation would thus always be for shorter periods, and that is not necessarily energy-efficient or sustainable.

Other companies who have utilised the natural occurrence of bioluminescence include the French company, Glowee. Glowee is hoping to tackle light pollution in the streets by using bioluminescence instead of window lights. Each bioluminescent bulb would be a transparent shell containing a combination of nutrients and oxygen, with the light taking any shape. Teresa comments that although challenging, the goals of Glowee is to create a more efficient micro-organism that can emit more light with lower maintenance demands.

When it comes to bioluminescence, there are quite a few obstacles to overcome if you truly want to implement it, “like the amount of light that is emitted or bringing down the daily maintenance,” Teresa comments. However, the French company Glowee have successfully managed to alter their life span from a few hours to a few days and has been working on increasing the light intensity since 2013.

For Teresa, the biggest challenge when working with bioluminescence is maintenance. “My light installations hold an artificial seawater that only contains one type of bacteria.” This means there is a great risk of contamination with other species that will outgrow or kill the bioluminescent ones. “But at the same time, the monopoly position that we ensure for them, allows them to grow so fast that you need to refresh the liquid on a regular basis.”

Teresa van Dongen has also investigated other fields of sustainability and collaborated with various science institutes. Currently, she is working with a team at Ghent University. They research micro-organisms that can clean wastewater or for example, get rid of oil spills and even clean up nuclear waste. These micro-organisms also have a valuable waste product of their own, electrons, which turns these organisms into a possible source of energy.

Based on this research, Teresa developed Spark of Life, a light installation that gets its energy from microbes; these organisms don’t emit light but provide the energy to power a device like an LED. Since then, she has worked on enhancing the light intensity and user experience. As a commission for the Centre Pompidou, she developed Electric Life – a living light installation which only needs a bit of nourishment in return for its energy. “I imagined that having to feed and thus take care of it could result in a closer relationship between the light installation and its owner.”

When Teresa was working with bioluminescence, maintenance was her biggest challenge. Yet this new system which Teresa is working on is more robust and contains hundreds of different bacteria, that together form a strong ecosystem. The electro-active bacteria, like the Geobacter, will be attracted to live on a specially engineered electrode to which they can excrete their electrons. This valuable energy is then guided through an electrical circuit where they finally power an LED light. The advantage of this system over other systems is that the bacteria battery doesn’t need any external plug and that these systems could operate independently from the grid. Teresa comments on how this will change people’s perspective on energy and where it is sourced from; “How will we think about energy when we need to take care of it ourselves and when we actually get something back in return for our efforts?”

Teresa believes success in Biodesign and its installations occur when there is a collaboration between scientists and designers. “There is a demand at the Ghent University in Belgium for working with artists and designers to translate scientific research into something tangible,” she remarks. Teresa notes that without this collaboration, research can continue for dozens of years at the risk of never actually being executed. “But designers can look at innovation from a different perspective and find alternative ways to implement things in our daily lives.” She says that even if her dim lights are a drop in the ocean, it would be a shame if innovation and discoveries stay behind the closed doors of international laboratories and science institutes.

Looking ahead, Teresa sees our future homes being powered by other microbes like the Geobacter, which although can not excrete light, can excrete electricity. It is an exciting prospect that promises sustainability in one way or another and a concept that will no doubt impact the lighting industry.

Through her unique designs like Ambio and One Luminous Dot, Teresa aims to change the way society regards light – presenting it as something we nourish, support and maintain, rather than perceived as a commodity. The future of lighting can indeed be made more sustainable thanks to the natural resource of marine organisms, and it is designers like Teresa van Dongen who are not only reminding us of that but also of nature’s mysteries within the ocean depths of our own planet.


Unios Universal Light Edition #3
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