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Tomato powered edge computing? Microbial fuel cells make it possible


I once worked next door to a nondescript, high-security building. One day I was surprised to find out that it was a server farm for one of the Silicon Valley tech giants. Even more surprising was learning that that one building used more than half of the electricity of the whole city!

That was my first awakening to the massive energy consumption of data centers. Recently, I read a headline that data centers could use as much as 70% of Ireland’s electricity by 2030.

As the world’s insatiable demand for the Internet continues to grow, we need to consider the massive consumption of electricity it entails, and how it impacts the planet. But this doesn’t just pertain to giant server farms. As we increasingly adopt IoT and edge computing technologies, how can we sustainably power billions of remote devices?

Symbiosis of nature and technology

An innovative project showcased at Milan Design Week last month may hold one of the answers. In a project entitled “Warm Earth,” Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Ilja Schamle created a fascinating renewable energy project that uses tomato vines and soil bacteria to power a rudimentary cloud server. He created a symbiotic relationship in which tomato plants and soil bacteria provide energy to a microcomputer, that in turn radiates heat to help the tomatoes grow. Genius, isn’t it?

This is how it works: as the tomato vines grow, their roots excrete excess sugars, which the bacteria break down, releasing electrons into the soil. Each plant pot is equipped with a grid made of iron and activated-carbon, which acts as an anode that harnesses the flow of electrons as electricity. The process is known as microbial fuel cell technology, and essentially turns the tomato plants and bacteria into living batteries.

Schamle set up the Warm Earth project in a typical server cabinet, filling it with rows of tomato vines and a solar-powered grow lamp, since the installation is housed indoors to protect the microcomputer. The computer is attached to the exterior of the cabinet, and as it generates heat, a fan blows the warm air into the cabinet, creating ideal greenhouse conditions.

Philosophical underpinnings

The project is deeply philosophical, and the server hosts a website that flashes a sequence of thought-provoking questions such as:

  • Can we learn how to live not being able to access internet 100% of the time?
  • What can a new look on efficiency be?
  • When a server works with the speed of growth of plants can this network infrastructure be in symbioses with plants?

Ultimately, the microbial fuel cell system in the Warm Earth project does not supply enough energy to fully power the microcomputer, so solar power provides a supplemental source of energy. However, Netherlands-based Plant-e is already commercializing microbial fuel cell technology in lighting products and IoT sensors.

Transforma Insights predicts that the number of edge computing devices will increase from 2.7 billion to 7.8 billion between 2020 and 2030. Mirantis has also been seeing increasing interest in our products for edge computing use cases, especially for k0s, our lightweight Kubernetes distribution. As more edge devices proliferate, Warm Earth provides one model of not only an alternative source of energy for edge devices, but also how people might interact with points of presence in our personal lives at home or in our gardens.

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