Getting dirty

This project comes from space in my mind that needs to be addressed. I have come to a point where I have become tired in making purely based on things I found pretty or that excited me just because I was curious.

I am curious in so many things that one that had to be useful to someone right? I kept seeing projects like E-nable and Robohand and couldn’t prevent myself feeling like I was just creating more junk in the world. So I started researching about microbial fuel cells and stumble across a few open source ones and I was excited to biofuels being open sourced! Then I came across a video promoting a school in South America boosting creating a ‘Plant Lamp.’ I was hooked. I became obsessed with figuring out how they were doing it. What black magic where they using!?

I discovered it was simple science taught in elementary school! It is pretty much the concept of a potato lamp. The plant actually had nothing to do with it. The soil was where the magic was happening. They developed a circuit to take the electrical potential generated by the minerals in the soil and store it to a battery. I was blown away that there is untapped energy right under my feet. I soon become really bother by the fact they closed out their source. In fact I was furious. I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t put out a project that clearly was developed to help people without a consistent electrical source.  A simple lamp at night can extend the work day for anyone. Heck screw the work day. Just simple leisure or in fact be able to study at night and work by day.  I believe in the study aspect a lot. Knowledge creates power and empowerment. Anyone who seeks it should have the ability to attain it.

So I set out on a mission to make a soil powered light. First thing I did was collect some mud and stick some wires in it to see what kind of power was capable of achieving.  I might excite easily but it was capable of getting . 8-1.0 volts.
The amperage was a bit weak but was able to get up by running a few anodes and cathodes in parallel.

Now that I knew it was possible, I had to figure out how to put that into a battery. I eventually came across a chip from texas instruments that was built for low-power energy harvesting. In fact so low that it was well below the voltage I was already achieving.  While researching this I started to build a glass box. I wanted to show how this technology in a pleasing way to get people excited by it.


This was fun and annoying. I have never cut glass before well at least not enough to actually be good at it.


I talked with Shelby on how to best build this thing. He suggested using silicone caulk and to use a box to make my panes of glass to sit flush with each other.

I drew up a quick CAD file to laser cut a box as well designed tiny holders to hold the wood in place to keep everything true.

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The edge of the print worked great for holding the bottom plate in place.


Afterwards I removed it from the mold and got a really crisp box. I was pretty excited by how clean came out.

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Now to build a box that could hold LEDs along the edge. I chose to work with Neopixels again. I really love these things. I cut some more panes of glass but this time freehanded putting the box together. I really was interested in how the light would look embedded into the glass.





It looked great!

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Then I made this discovery, certain things would catch the light when pressed up to the glass.

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Even dirt… I was so excited knowing that the soil would create a pattern against the surface.


Here it is empty with a strand test running.

Okay its all working out so far. Time to design holder to contain the glass, LEDs, and wires in one part.

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It worked great! I was excited to keep pushing this further.



I soon found out this pattern would form if one end of the glass would be left open. It was gorgeous, but a distraction.

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During this I was still working on the circuit. This was the time my ego got in the way. I thought I could figure this out on my own. I couldn’t. I hit a wall. I started reaching out for anyone to be able to help me.

Finally I thought I was good again! Patrick Lichty helped me out. He sent me this circuit and told me I just needed to figure out some resistor values. I was so confident I could do it….Well not so much. My EE skills are limited. So I stopped here and put my project on hold in this development. I needed time to read more about EE and how to even get to the point of knowing what the heck to do.

If anyone has any suggestions please let me know. I am not abandoning this project.  I will do whatever it takes to figure this out.


During this realization I visited the Portland Art Museum and stumbled upon the Cosmic Cavern by Kenny Scharf. It was amazing. It was one my favorite installations.

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After sharing this realization with Shelby, we discussed it might be better to take this in a different directions. Lie. Pretend like figured it out. Keep people interested by showing off the concept. I really did not want to do a educational install. No one gets excited by dry science.

So I pushed forward and decided to try and develop an experience.  I continued designing parts to put the panes in. I ran into the classic printing problem.  Bed adhesion was kicking my butt and I was changing my design to work with my printer and made the box look…not as nice.

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In fact, it made assembly worse. So Shelby offered to take it his school and print it on a dual extruder so I could print with dissolvable supports. They came out so much better I was really pleased with the results.

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My install in the end was soil with  an red LED in it. A pile of soil with pulsing red LEDs. A glass box with the bottom glowing between red and blue, then a glass box pulsing red to green. I was struggling tying that the power was coming from the soil. I also added a contact speaker to make the entire wall a speaker to fill the room with ‘life’ speaking of technology and hopes. People were just not getting it, my first step into installation created a moment…Just not the one I was seeking.

In the end I tried to infuse smell, sound, color and light to hint at the dirt creating the power to turn on the electronics.

In the end it really didn’t work. I took the chance and didn’t quite pull it off.

It was still fun for me regardless. Here is some footage of it as well as a playlist of the music I played during the event. I chose all the music very intentionally based around the lyrical content as well as the general vibe.


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