Honey, Did You Feed The Lamp? Company Wants To Create Living Light Bulbs

The BBC’s [Peter Yeung] had an interesting post about a small French town experimenting with using bioluminescent organisms to provide lighting. A firm called Glowee is spearheading the effort in Rambouillet and other towns throughout France, using a variety of biological techniques to harness nature’s light sources.

Glowing animals are reasonably common ranging from fireflies to railroad worms. In the case of the French street lighting, Glowee is using a marine bacterium known as aliivibrio fischeri. A salt-water tube contains nutrients and when air is flowing through the tube, the bacteria glow with a cool turquoise light. The bacteria enter an anaerobic state and stop glowing if you shut off the air.

While the company claims the bulbs take less energy to produce and operate than LED bulbs, they also admit that the bulbs produce a fraction of the light. We aren’t clear on how the nutrients get into the tubes and how long the bulbs last. Critics point out that the bulbs will probably be very temperature sensitive and the density of the bacteria could vary depending on their reproduction.

Animals that generate light do so using a chemical reaction involving an enzyme known as luciferase. One strategy that Glowee wants to develop is extracting luciferase and using it without the living organisms. Apparently, this same technology is used by a Canadian company to produce biodegradable glow sticks.

Using biological lighting isn’t a new idea. According to the BBC, miners have been known to use fireflies in jars where a flame is too dangerous and tribes in India have used glowing fungi to illuminate dense jungle areas.

We’ve seen novelty lighting use these techniques to good effect. It also makes a decent nightlight.

30 thoughts on “Honey, Did You Feed The Lamp? Company Wants To Create Living Light Bulbs

  1. Including the cost of producing the nutrients and distributing them and dealing with any waste products, is it actually more cost efficient and cleaner than renewable electricity production?

    1. Possibly, once scaled up sufficiently – if you build a whole huge network for it the way we already have for electric, water and gas in most places, and also likely to be a the very small scale of personal lighting – where the user can do all the work required…

      Going to be very hard to really judge until a few of them are built and characterized through all the varied weather conditions.

      I do rather doubt it will end up cheaper to provide useful light, though it might well end up cleaner, as biological waste products are just nutrients for other bio processes and the required nutrients are probably makeable from waste around our own food production.

      1. Municipalities switched street lighting from HPS lamps to LED despite both being roughly equal in lumens/watt and LEDs being inferior in some other ways, simply because it slightly reduced the maintenance cost of replacing them.

        Human labor is surprisingly expensive.

        1. Indeed it is, but so is the upfront cost of potentially making the lights cheaper to run but on some entirely new infrastructure.

          Usually it seems paying pennies extra per unit to keep the old system going is preferred than upfront paying for a few years worth of those saved pennies. Time will tell, and as it stands this bio luminescent lamp concept hasn’t been proven in any way, it could end up costing vastly more to run as well heaps more to keep in repair.

        2. This was my first thought. If it requires people to make conscious daily efforts to maintain it’s not an accessible product. Too many of us would lack the time or executive function needed to keep the lights on. Even for people organized enough to maintain its function it’s a pain – who would voluntarily arrange to add chores to their day? This is the kind of thing that will sell very well to a niche market – plant enthusiasts, and people whose interest in environmentalism is mainly aesthetic. It’s not a practical solution for everyday lighting needs.

        3. The new LED lights are far too white, HPS at least worked well with fog and wildlife.
          The LEDs just dazzle and keep everything awake, along with all the RF emissions from being mesh repeaters in the newer ones

    2. With a bit of additional engineering they will find food by themselves and do what living things do best: create copies of themselves! Bonus points if the use raw sewage as nutrient source. Double bonus points if they like to keep close to asphalt at night for its residual heat.

      1. Sewage is a pretty amazing collector for every virus within an area. Medical bacteriophage viruses are commonly extracted by running dilute sewage over plated pathogenic bacteria, and you can pretty much assume the virus you want will just be there. There’s even weird seasonality to phages, where the fall air is absolutely laden with natural phages that will kill your plated colonies if careless with exposure. It’s an awesome idea, but you’d basically need to process the sewage down to soy sauce (re: a soup of disconnected monomers from which most energetic bonds are already broken) for it to work.

  2. interesting but the Glowee site doesn’t mention the amount of light actually being produced. Most of the bioluminescent sources I seen ( including a few engineered for light output ) provide just enough to see if your eyes are night adapted.

    1. “They estimated that if a plant could be produced that would emit around 57 lumens of light each, they would need 40 plants in every 30m (98ft) on each side of the road in order to meet the lowest class of street lighting required on roads used by pedestrians in Europe.” (on TFA)

      An easy solution would be to change the regulations. We don’t need that much light at night!

  3. Gives a whole new meaning to your lightbulb dying lol. I can definitely see specific applications where this tech will … shine (pun intended), but for general use lighting there are still a number of limitations that would need to be addressed.

  4. I’m thinking all the same technology developed to support this would also work for a system of phosphorescent particles pumped through transparent panels to “charge” during the day, stored in mirrored tanks, then pumped through fixtures at night to release light. Such a system would have the benefit of lacking the nutrient/waste concerns already brought up in other comments. However, if it were something like the “glowing mushrooms in a cave” trope used in movies/TV, where they were completely self-sufficient and provided useful light with no moving parts, then I’d be all for it.

    1. The problem with phosphorescence would be you cant really “store” them without them releasing photons immediately instead of waiting till it gets dark. And storing them in a mirrored tank will do nothing to increase efficiency as any released light cant re-energize nearby neighbors (to charge the material the incoming photon energy must be higher, ie. shining light of the same wavelength on it as the material emits will literally do nothing).

  5. Will this bio light serve multi purpose? Length of life of the micro bulbs is a good point, is smell a factor since they need air? when the bacteria finally dies out are they edible? biodegradable? bacterium lobster bisque? the impossible bulb? Maybe they can live forever, my preference would be a lava lamp ecosystem filled with sea water, plants, flowers, vampire fish , fireflies and bioluminescence eruptions.

  6. Why not put the luciferase gene in grass? Photosynthetic by day (and glowing but we wouldn’t see it then), and we could see it by night. I’ve seen it put into a tobacco plant, so it can be done in concept.

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