We are Nada, Catherine, and Paige. We met at the intersection of the Biosummit and Biodesign Challenge communities, all fascinated by the possibilities of biodesign. We’re deeply motivated by care, materiality, and ancestry. In October 2021, we participated in the Electronics Biodesign Sprint and decided to explore how we could make our devices more sustainable but also meaningful. We felt that if our phones felt different to the touch and told a different story, then disposing of them would be less of an option.
We stumbled across a Science article titled “The Mud is Electric” during the Biodesign Sprint. It told the story of the scientists who first documented electrically active bacteria and started playing with their possibilities. It turns out these bacteria are found everywhere in oxygen-starved soils, from salt marshes to backyard ponds and deep sea trenches. And their capabilities can be harnessed to generate power.
For us, this was very intriguing. Is there a way to generate electricity by growing bacteria? What if we could create a material that could power our devices and go back to the soil at the end of its use?
That’s the idea behind Electric Skin. A self-powering material. Beautiful, growable, and compostable.
But as time went on and we researched, we realised that not only is this possible, but there are likely many more applications, ones that are not obvious to us but will be to others.
THE BIRTH OF THE PROJECT
The time for a project like this is now.
Straddling speculative energy futures and current innovation, we are developing a new biomaterial that can generate electricity from the humidity in the air, using pili: the protein nanowires from Geobacter sulfurreducens.
Our vision is of a radically sustainable energy future, where our power generation and our electronics are growable and compostable. Where our electronic devices have a new materiality, complex, textured, and perhaps even alive.
Drawing on research done by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Electric Skin is a proof-of-concept Sci-Art exploration of the electrically conductive capacities of a protein found in the anaerobic mud bacteria Geobacter sulfurreducens.
The protein can conduct current like a metal when exposed to ambient humidity. These proteins form nanowires that can create an electrical charge using the surrounding moisture when linked together. The nanowires can produce 0.5 volts across a 7-micrometer-thick film—a measurement thinner than a human hair.
Electric Skin is deeply inspired by working with the evolutionary ingenuity of this tiny bacterium. We are exploring ways to harness its energy by embedding these tiny pilli (protein nanowires) onto a compostable biomaterial to close the loop - from the soil and back to the soil.
In line with working with living systems, we asked ourselves:
What subtle aspects could we focus on to make these intangible and invisible microscopic beings more visible?
And so, the prototyping of a Light was born. And to embed the circuit, we are investigating biodegradable algal polymers to create a sheet to host our nanowires as they “breathe” and respond to the ambient humidity in the surrounding environment; they show themselves to us through light.
We love this quality of our material that intrinsically links us to the natural world through our devices through a shared need for air and water to create power.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
As our proof of concept design, we are applying this breakthrough research to a beautiful object we come into contact with every day - a light. By creating a functional and aesthetically innovative prototype, we are disseminating academic research in a new and accessible way for a varied audience through art.
It all starts by obtaining the genetic code that allows these amazing Geobacter bacteriums to produce these nanowires for their cellular respiration in deep soil environments! We then introduce these into E.coli to be able to better monitor the amount of nanowires we produce when growing these creatures in large liquid fermentation containers called bioreactors, using sugars to produce proteins. We harvest the tiny tubules by spinning and separating the proteins from the microorganisms in a centrifuge, then drying them into a powder.
These protein nanowires are the key ingredients for charging our SKIN.
Since the beginning of our journey into electrically conductive biomaterials, we have had a vision of a skin for our devices. This skin would serve as a flexible battery adaptable to many forms of technology.
Why skin? We envisioned a biophilic future where our devices are cared for as we would care for a plant, pet, or companion. The addition of a textured membrane that could charge our devices with ambient air gives our design an inherent living or biomimetic property, which we think can help us connect better with our devices and their material bodies, making them less disposable and therefore reducing e-waste.
So far, the small devices created at Lovley’s lab at UMASS have been created using polyamide or glass as the substrates, or bases, on which we cast our nanowires. We wanted to take the technology a step further into complete circularity by making our material go from soil (bacteria) to skin (user interface) and back to the soil (compost).
Our multidisciplinary team has been working on Electric Skin for over a year.
In this short time, working completely decentralised across continents, we have moved from an abstract idea to a prototype and proof of concept.
Our combined backgrounds as bio artists, conceptual artists, open-source citizen scientists, and ecologists merge and are showcased harmoniously in this piece. Additionally, we have a solid team of collaborators from various disciplines who help elevate our foundations in synthetic biology, prototyping, storytelling, and material design.
So far, our ambitious vision has been supported by the scientists who made this discovery - Drs Lovley and Yao at UMASS, as well as the EU’s Worth Partnership Project and Catalonia’s Pandora hub.
Electric Skin is currently in the proof-of-concept stage. We aim to bridge the gap between biotechnology companies by building a toolkit to disseminate our collective research and empower a bicurious community by inspiring people to take charge of their power.
We want to make this ground-breaking research accessible to a broader multidisciplinary design, science-based, and maker community by showcasing its potential to generate sustainable electricity by harnessing the elements in our homes (humidity and air) to power our devices.
We plan to partner with individuals, collectives, and institutions with a drive to apply our research to their diverse and imaginative applications. The aim of collaborating with scientists is not only to create new iterations of Electric Skin but also to showcase the potential to further develop our nanowire biotechnology and fabrication methods.
Our energy future is grown, not extracted.
With Electric Skin, we are creating a new relationship with our electronic devices. Beyond the design, technology, and artistry, we want to connect people to their devices by making them more “alive.” Using nanowires from soil bacteria, we connect our audience to the life process of our materials from the soil and back to the soil.
We value the power of collaborations and the amazingly diverse backgrounds that can take this technology to applications we alone cannot imagine.
We openly invite makers, scientists, electric engineers, artists, designers, and dreamers to collaborate and prototype with Electric Skin.
Join us on our mission to change the way we charge the world!
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