bioluminescent algae, public domain image 

bioluminescent algae, public domain image 

Bioluminescence, or the ability to produce light, is probably one of the most fascinating attributes a living organism can have. A French scientist and aquaculture pioneer named Pierre Calleja created a lamp harnessing the property of bioluminescence in algae that cleans the air around it while providing electricity-free lighting. 

Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence can be observed in fireflies, species of jellyfish, deep sea fish, fungi, plankton, algae and other organisms. The term derives from the Greek bio (life) and the Latin lumen (light). It is a form of chemiluminescence or the emission of light resulting from a chemical reaction. Luciferin is a pigment that can emit light when oxidized (when electrons are removed in reaction) by the enzyme luciferase, and this is the most common cause of bioluminescence. Luciferin is sometimes already present in the glowing organism and is sometimes obtained through their diet. Bioluminescence is used by organisms for signaling, mating, and counter-illumination camouflage (in which light is produced to blend into an illuminated background like the sky). Bioluminescence can appear in various shades of white, blue, orange, red and green. 

bioluminescent jellyfish, public domain image

bioluminescent jellyfish, public domain image

The Algae Lamp

Calleja’s innovative cylindrical lamp harnesses the bioluminescence and photosynthesis of marine microalgae and is intended to be a street lamp. Smithsonian magazine explains that while absorbing light and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, the lamp also emits oxygen and a fluorescent green glow, so is, essentially, “nature’s all-in-one version of a solar panel, a carbon sink and a light bulb.” These algae lamps are far more efficient at removing CO2 from the air than trees. Inhabitat explains that “a single lamp could absorb roughly a ton of carbon from the air in just one year—the same amount as 150 or 200 trees.” 

Another potential positive environmental impact is the removal of the algae from bodies of water experiencing toxic algal blooms, which are extremely harmful to marine life. Like many solar-based systems, the algae lamp comes with a battery that stores the energy it produces through photosynthesis so that it can be used in the darkness. Engineering.com shares that Calleja compares the oceans and plants of the Earth to two lungs and says that he wants to use his algae-based lamps to help the Earth breathe. In his 2013 TED Talk about this lamp, Calleja said the light produced is “special” and “soft” because “it goes through a live animal.” Select the image below to visit his TED talk on YouTube. 

Potential complications and critiques for the widespread implementation of this type of lighting do exist. They include the fragility and weight of the glass lamp, the likely buildup of residue inside the lamp over time and the concern that as the algae expands, it could actually begin to block out light. 

Humans have long been drawn to the potential of bioluminescence. Hakai Magazine of Coastal Science reports that there are early records of it being used for lantern-making in Rome and Indonesia as early as 20 AD. In 1747, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “It is indeed possible that an extremely small animalcule, too small to be visible even by the best glasses, may yet give a visible light.” Naval forces around the world have tried to harness bioluminescence for vessel tracking. Additional military studies focus on the potential use of bioluminescence for biodegradable helicopter landing zones, security systems and friend versus foe ID markers. Other modern designs for algae lamps have come into existence as well and a design for a federal building utilizing algae farms for energy won Metropolis Magazine’s 2011 “Next Generation” design competition.

Pierre Calleja and Fermentalg

This algae lamp’s inventor has a long and rich background as a biologist, chemist, and aquaculture inventor and entrepreneur. His LinkedIn bio explains that he “specialized on microalgae in the early 80s, convinced by their strong potential and exceptional properties that open the way for a lot of applications in several areas of production.” Calleja’s early work with France Aquaculture focused on researching and developing marine farm larval breeding techniques. In the early 90s, he founded Kurios as a subsidiary of Sanofi Aquaculture and developed unique larval feed and fish feeding supplements. Kurios was highly financially successful and Calleja sold it in 2000 before focusing on how to mass produce algae with IFREMER (The Institut français de recherche pour l'exploitation de la mer / French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea). 

In 2007, he acquired two microalgae farming patents and founded Fermentalg Société Anonyme. Fermentalg released the algae lamps in 2012 and has demoed them in parking areas in southern France. Calleja explained to Algae Industry Magazine that Fermentalg also exploits microalgae’s exceptional properties in order to “produce molecules of interest such as the omega-3 fatty acids, coloring agents, antioxidants and biopolymers, etc. that we integrate and use in our everyday products.” They’ve also harnessed algae to create a biofuel with lower carbon emissions than petroleum-based fuels. Calleja served as Fermentalg’s chief executive officer until 2015 and as the chairman until 2016. In 2015, he created Planet Forever to further develop processes that can use algae for depollution. 

You can learn more about Fermentalg’s work with various microalgae on their website and Facebook page. If your curiosity into bioluminescence is piqued or renewed, you may want to seek out a location in which you can view and even swim in glowing water filled with luminescing microorganisms, such as Malta, California, or Japan. Growing Plant sells seeds, plants, and maker kits for those who want a bioluminescent house plant and Instructables offers free instructions, which they do say require patience, to grow your own bioluminescent algae at home. 

-By Julia Travers