Tomato plants to generate energy: Warm Earth uses green batteries

Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Ilja Schamle has replaced batteries with living plants in this self-built server system to explore how technology could enter into a symbiotic relationship with nature.

Showcased as part of the Missed Your Call graduate exhibition at Milan design week, the project sees renewable energy derived from tomato vines used to run a cloud server, while the heat generated by the computer provides optimal growing temperatures for the vegetables.

The self-sufficient system, dubbed Warm Earth, was designed for an apocalyptic future, in which humanity can no longer depend on power stations and must instead turn to live plants as an alternative energy source. "Having the whole internet run on plants, it wouldn't be possible with the way that we're using servers right now and how much content there is," Schamle told Dezeen.

"We wouldn't be able to function in this way, and that is a very harsh reality,"  she said. "It can help us understand how much energy is needed to run these systems and how far detached we are from them."

Schamle's artificial ecosystem was conceived to take data centers from being foreign entities, hidden from our daily lives to everyday fixtures in our homes. It sees the tomato plants housed within a traditional server rack cabinet while the server itself is mounted to the exterior. A ventilation shaft connects the two, with a fan helping to funnel the hot air generated by the microcomputer into the interior of the cabinet, effectively turning it into a greenhouse.

At the same time, the tomatoes help to power the server through plant-microbial fuel cell technology, pioneered by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which effectively turns the vegetables into batteries. The plants draw energy from the sun in the process of photosynthesis, converting it into chemical energy and storing it in the sugars and proteins they use to build their bodies. Any excess is excreted through the roots as a waste product, where the energy-rich organic material is broken down by bacteria living in the soil, releasing the energy stored in the organic material as electrons that can then be harnessed as electricity.

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