Can an Algae-Powered Lamp Quench Our Thirst For Energy?

A French chemist is developing street lights that can absorb carbon dioxide 200 times more efficiently than trees

Pierre Calleja

There’s something very special about bioluminescent algae. They soak up sunlight, absorb carbon dioxide, and in return, breathe out oxygen while emitting a soft fluorescent glow. In essence, it’s nature’s all-in-one version of a solar panel, a carbon sink and a light bulb.

With that very thought, French biochemist Pierre Calleja has spent several years working on a way to harness the microorganisms’ special abilities to help mitigate some of planet Earth’s most pressing problems, namely global warming, threats to ecosystems and the need for renewables. His solution comes in the shape of a cylindrical algae-powered lamp that requires no electricity and is thus completely self-sufficient, operating through a process wherein all the energy produced during photosynthesis is collected and stored in a battery that helps to power the light during the evenings.

But how much of a difference maker can these goopy little marine organisms be? I mean no one’s ever heard of a lamp saving the world. Well, the fact is that microalgae is incredibly efficient at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, about 150 to 200 times more than trees. Basically, an algae lamp can remove as much CO2 in one year as a tree would in its lifetime. Also, extracting algae from aquatic environments, such as oceans, could potentially save fish and other marine life since rapid increases known as algal blooms have caused widespread mortality due to harmful toxins that are sometimes released.

Calleja recently gave a filmed TED talk in Lausanne, Italy Switzerland, where he described the genesis of his concept and how he hoped to implement the technology (algae lamp-lined parking lots anyone?). During the presentation, he showcased a prototype that appeared to emit a fairly bright and consistent neon-ish radiance.

“The light that goes through that lamp is very special,” Calleja explains to the audience. “It is a very soft light because it goes through a live animal.”

But bio-engineering such a dream scenario isn’t without its challenges. As Atlantic writer John Metcalfe points out, skeptics are still waiting to hear how Calleja plans to overcome some of the plant’s problematic properties, such as the “light-smothering qualities of dense plumes of algae” and maintenance to prevent the ”dirty fishbowl” effect in which a murky buildup starts to accumulate on the glass lamp over time. He also cites Rose Ann Cattolico, an algae scientist at the University of Washington, who suggested that designing a version for practical use would “task the abilities of a bioengineer.” And of course the project’s ultimate feasibility would hinge on costs to, er, grow the technology to a wider scale, though Calleja’s employer, FermentAlg seems to have a reputable track record of developing algae-based technological solutions. So far, the research team has installed one operational demo lamp in a parking lot in the city of Bordeaux in southern France.

So who knows if algae lamps will light the way to greener, smarter cities? But at least the hope looks a little bit brighter.