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Scientists Have Engineered Living, Breathing Wallpaper

It could one day be used for disposable, biodegradable sensors printed on paper.

Scientists Have Engineered Living, Breathing Wallpaper
[Photo: © Marin Sawa/Imperial College London]

Wallpaper is about to become a lot more useful.

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Scientists from Imperial College London, Cambridge, and Central Saint Martins have figured out how to use an inkjet printer to print photosynthesizing bacteria onto paper, effectively creating a new way to turn microbes into a living power bank.

The bacteria, called cyanobacteria, turns energy it gathers from the sun into electricity–almost like natural, living solar panels. The scientists were able to harness this power by first printing conductive ink onto paper, and then printing the cyanobacteria in specific patterns on top in such a way that enables energy transfer between the bacteria and the conductive ink. The finished panel was then exposed to light. Over a period of 100 hours, the scientists harvested small amounts of electricity from the bacteria as they photosynthesized.

To test their technique, the scientists printed out the living bacteria and conductive ink onto a paper panel about the size of a Post-it note and used it to power a simple digital clock and a LED light bulb.

For Marin Sawa, a research associate at Imperial College London and a co-author on the paper, the discovery’s applications are primarily in the area of sensors, both in healthcare and in monitoring environmental factors. “Imagine a paper-based, disposable environmental sensor disguised as wallpaper, which could monitor air quality in the home,” Sawa said in a statement. “When it has done its job it could be removed and left to biodegrade in the garden without any impact on the environment.”

[Photo: © Marin Sawa/Imperial College London]
While scientists have worked with photosynthetic bacteria before to produce energy, it’s been difficult to scale up the technology because it’s expensive, produces only a small amount of power, and the bacteria have a short lifespan. But the ability to simply print out cyanobacteria on paper using an off-the-shelf inkjet printer would be cheaper and more cost-effective than other current methods of using cyanobacteria to generate energy.

The scientists are still working to increase the amount of electricity the bacteria generate. The team’s next step is to make panels that are larger, more powerful, and last longer.

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This research takes us a step closer to hospital rooms that use living wallpaper to power patients’ health monitors–and one day, maybe even our bedroom walls will power our gadgets.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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