Bioluminescence against the night sea of light
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)
Like glowing mini UFOs, they flitter through summer nights and mesmerise us with their enigmatic light. We are all familiar with glow-worms and are thrilled to witness bioluminescence as a miracle of nature. And organisms are also exploiting this ability in the depths of our oceans in order to entice prey, hunt and deceive their enemies. To this end, almost 80 percent of all deep-sea organisms are able to generate light. An ability that represents environmentally-friendly light and could be a sustainable alternative in our light-polluted world. Because it is not just glow-worms that we so seldom get to see, the stars at night are barely identifiable in some places. Light pollution is making pitch-dark nights a rarity. Light smog disturbs darkness and entire eco systems – making us humans sick in the process.
Satellite images of our planet showcase a radiant ocean of nocturnal light. Street lighting, spotlights designed to place buildings and gardens in the right light and illuminated advertising billboards transform night into day. Electric lighting was introduced to the cities of Europe at the end of the 19th century. And the first warnings about light pollution became audible just a hundred years later. Meanwhile, our cities are in part 4,000 times brighter than natural nocturnal light. But it is becoming increasingly clear that night being turned into day has consequences for humans and animals alike.
Young entrepreneur Sandra Rey is now using the environmentally friendly deep-sea light to illuminate our habitats. Her Paris-based ‘Glowee’ start-up manufactures lamps that are filled with bioluminescent organisms. With their gentle green-blue shimmer from the sea, Glowee wants to illuminate our cities in a sustainable manner and simultaneously combat light pollution.
Sandra, please tell us how you came up with the idea for Glowee.
I stumbled across the idea for Glowee while participating in a design competition when I was a student. I watched a documentary on deep-sea fish and thought of using natural bioluminescence as an alternative source of light.
Many people are not yet aware that there is such a thing as light pollution. What are the dangers of light pollution?
Light pollution is the brightening of the sky caused by artifi cial lighting. It is not a new phenomenon, but research on the topic is still quite recent. That said, light pollution has been shown to disturb fauna and flora by upsetting their natural patterns. The same goes for human beings: light pollution disturbs our biological clock and can have consequences on hormone production, influencing sleep quality, reproduction and ageing.
What industries, or areas, are the biggest causes of light pollution?
Light pollution is most prevalent in major cities, or urban conurbations – and not industry. This is controlled by public administration. There are also marketing and commercial displays, brightly lit throughout the night, which are contributing to the problem.
How does the Glowee lamp work?
Glowee technology is a bioluminescent fluid that generates light. It can be used in a variety of displays. It is made of marine microorganisms that have, like 80% of marine organisms, the ability to produce biolumnescence.
How long does a lamp glow?
Glowee lights work like an aquarium. As long as you feed the system – therefore keeping the microorganisms in good shape – light will be produced. Microorganisms grow exponentially, which means that there are always new populations of bacteria able to produce the right light.
Bioluminescence in nature is not particularly bright. How could you
generate more intensive light for your lamps?
There are so many ways to improve the light. Firstly, using greater volumes of bioluminescence microorganisms over larger areas provides excellent illumination – especially compared to nature, where there are usually only very small quantities. Secondly, we can biologically improve the microorganisms’ ability to produce better light simply through mutation, by finding the best nutrient mix possible. Finally, we can use optical technologies, like those used in all lighting systems today.
Do you only produce lamps or is your light innovation technology being used in other products as well?
The product we have been offering to date is called ‘Glowzen Room’. This is a bioluminescent installation for relaxation purposes – similar to a garden – and is rounded off with relaxing music and voiceover technology. It is an immersive and inspiring 15-minute experience that is targeted at hotel lobbies, spas or events.
So where else can this technology being used for more sustainable lightning?
Our goal is to bring this biological light to the cities of tomorrow – this is where it can have a greater impact, both in terms of sustainable development, but also in terms of attractiveness and comfort in cities.
What companies already are using Glowee and for which projects?
We have worked with a number of large companies for events, including LVMH, AccorHotels and Vinci Energies.
What has been the most exciting project, or partner, for you personally so far?
I love projects that involve children, because it is always amazing to see how children react when confronted with bioluminescence. For them, it is not extraordinary, they merely view it as a self-evident source of light. This is exactly how we want our clients and the rest of the world to think. Then, of course, projects that we are currently carrying out with ‘Glowzen Room’ are really exciting, because these are the first permanent bioluminescence installations and therefore a huge step forward for us.
I can imagine that establishing a start-up-company in this kind of industry is not easy. What sort of problems did you have and what was the biggest challenge at the beginning?
The most challenging part of creating a biotech start-up is moving from the R&D phase to product launch. Sharing your product with users is the most interesting part and greatly accelerates your development as it reveals issues and forces you to solve them efficiently and immediately. Another challenge that every start-up faces, and we are no stranger to this at Glowee, is of course fundraising, something that is particularly challenging in biotech!
What is your vision for Glowee? What do you want to achieve one day with your technology?
In 10 years, I’d like Glowee to be a major player in reshaping the way we think about light in urban settings and to help participate in a greener, more sustainable future!
Sandra is a dreamer and a passionate entrepreneur, who followed her diploma in industrial design with a social entrepreneurship degree. Throughout her vocational career, she has been immersed in innovation and new points of view. This led to her participating in a student competition focusing on synthetic biology, where she began to ask herself economical and ecological questions relating to electric light. It was a television programme on deep-sea bioluminescent creatures that triggered the idea to harness these superpowers to generate light in order to revolutionise the way we illuminate our urban environments.
Picture credit © Glowee