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A Streetlight Powered by Algae: Is This Actually Possible?

The world has too much algae and too little power. Oh yeah, and the climate is changing at an alarming pace. Can't someone build a Rube Goldbergian contraption that addresses all of these problems at once?

Someone has, supposedly. Pierre Calleja of the French start-up FermentAlg (warning: website can put you into instant state of Transcendental Meditation) has designed what is being billed as civilization's first algae street lamp. This glowing canister of microorganisms, a prototype of which is sloshing around in the company's parking lot in Bordeaux, includes this overstuffed bag of features: It doesn't require electricity, drawing power instead from batteries that are charged by the algae's photosynthesis; it helps stop global warming, because the briny microorganisms suck CO2 from the air; it looks a lot like Nickelodeon's famed "green slime" but is not, in fact, made from molding cafeteria food.

Find a way to transfer the tons of algae currently killing off the world's marine life into Calleja's vitrines, and you got yourself the perfect eco-friendly streetlight. That's indeed what the biochemist imagines these lamps serving as, lining the highways of the future and absorbing vast amounts of car exhaust to make a "massive" effect on climate change. For more details on the light, view the above video or metabolize these lower-cased grafs from Designboom:

the lamps are composed of a tube containing microalgae, as well as a battery during the day, the batteries are charged via photosynthesis of the algae, using both solar power and CO2 (both of which are usable by the plantlife). this means that the lamps represent a viable electricity-free lighting solution even for locations where there is no or little natural light, such as underground parking garages. at night, the stored power is used for lighting.

calleja notes that about 25% of CO2 present in the air is thought to be generated from car exhaust, so using the devices as roadside lighting helps solve two social problems at once, each unit absorbing an estimated ton of emissions per year. in fact microalgae is more efficient than trees, to the extent that each lamp absorbs a reported 150 to 200 times from CO2 than a tree.

So who is this Calleja guy, and does his technology have a ghost of a chance of actually illuminating cities and highways with its alien jade glow? It turns out Calleja does have a substantial knowledge of algae, having studied the glop for two decades. FermentAlg has attracted millions in investments, although the company performs many kinds of algal-based research, such as using it for food and biofuel. And eukaryote-based design isn't a foreign concept to urban planners and architects, as shown by this 2011 prize-winning concept for an "algae-powered federal building" in Los Angeles.

Now that renown algae expert Isabella Abbott is no longer with us, I didn't quite know who to go to for truth-testing Calleja's idea. Commenters on that YouTube video certainly don't seem to buy it, citing the light-smothering qualities of dense plumes of algae and the need to frequently clean the sides of the tank so it remains brightish, and not murky like a dirty fishbowl. I would also imagine that the weight of these watery devices would prevent many overhead applications. Vandalism would have to be taken into consideration, too, as bad children would probably love nothing more than to crack the glass with a stone and see the green goo pour forth.

A researcher at the lab of Rose Ann Cattolico, the University of Washington's diehard algae scientist, acted like I was speaking in tongues when I described Calleja's concept. She suggested it would task the abilities of a bioengineer. I also reached out to the Smithsonian on Tuesday, although the venerable institution has yet to cough up an algae-lighting expert. That kind of prompts the question: Does anybody on earth, except for Calleja, believe these things could work?

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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