DEMO9 Matthew Halpenny – Workshop on microbial fuel cells

Matthew Halpenny’s work on Open-Source microbial fuel cells – a type of energy harvesting device for soil, mud, and plants – takes a research-creation approach to addressing the public inaccessibility of new energy technologies. Research-creation means discovery through making, testing, potentially failing, and making again. It is the documentation of a process and the development of novel fabrication methods. These Open-Source microbial fuel cells (MFCs) act as a means to reshape scientific-industrial knowledge from a form locked behind paywalls and fabrication processes that are intentionally left incomplete to center capital copyrights over reproducibility. The Open-Source ethos allows anyone to download, use, and modify existing code. To produce MFCs we need code that can print our cells and schematics that allow us to harvest energy from these cells. Everything along the path to creating an MFC is documented and shared in Halpenny’s work as they themselves learned how MFCs operate. 

Open-Source MFC diagram of 3D printable parts, electrodes, & washer


MFCs are an exciting energy prospect as they allow us to harvest energy from natural ecosystems with minimal disruption. In many ways they act as a foil for the extractive energy paradigm that destroys our ecosystems through mineral mining, oil welling, and carbon emissions. Like many alternative energy technologies, they come with limitations. To work along microbes gathering energy is a much slower process then we expect from our modern energy consumption habits. Halpenny’s research aims not to be an equally “efficient” source of energy but a way of visualizing new symbiotic energy systems where we must work alongside the timescales of our environment and not work against them. 

Energy harvesting is a broad term that could apply to solar, wind, or heat (amongst other methods). Microbial energy harvesting uses residual ions that exist within soil-based mediums to create an electric circuit. The ions come from microbial metabolic processes, or rather the decomposition of matter in soil.

Early moss-based MFC that was part of Halpenny’s R-C, presented at Le Centre Pomidou with Fossilation. 

The ions are produced on a timescale outside of human activity, microbes don’t conform to our needs, we must instead work along them on their own terms. Halpenny’s research adapts scientific knowledge on ultra-low power management circuits to slowly convert energy in the   20 millivolt – 200 millivolt range to the standard 3300 millivolts that most of our portable electronics run off. During their research nearly no scientific paper shared their schematics to do this – it’s every researcher for themselves. The very limited few who did often did so so long ago that the electronics in their circuits were now discontinued. 

Power management circuit based off Halpenny’s workshop.

Following the Open-Source ethos of maker communities like Adafruit and Arduino, Halpenny centers their research on reproducibility without the prerequisite of being an engineer. Maker communities share designs and more importantly the processes to get something working. This means the difficult task of figuring out the code, circuit design, or fabrication methods are wiped away and nearly anyone up to the task can make the object in question. The Open-Source MFCs come with a three part step-by-step guide towards making the cells. The parts are divided into cell fabrication, electrode fabrication, and circuit design. Each of these steps tries to detail several pathways to creating MFCs, some of which offer DIY methods of fabrication that don’t require technical equipment but may be less effective than their counterparts but that’s also part of the discussion Halpenny’s work tries to evoke. The fabrication process doesn’t need to be centered around efficiency, instead we should be looking at the process from a systematic viewpoint. Some questions we should be asking ourselves are: does this process create pollution, does this process contribute to a more circular economy, what is the embodied energy of the materials used, and who has access to the equipment and materials required for fabrication? Efficiency doesn’t need to mean we’re generating the most power but rather we are reducing our environmental impact as well as we can and making it as accessible as we can. 

3D printed MFC parts
MFC parts during 3D printing

The Open-Source MFCs started as an artwork that quickly unravelled when Halpenny tried to make sense of all the MFC papers they were reading. While Halpenny is still producing artworks with their MFCs they didn’t want future artists, makers, or experimenters to struggle with the same roadblocks. Their work on Open-Source MFCs was presented at Ars Electronica as part of the Hexagram Network Garden where the fabrication process and design files were released and can now be publicly accessed here. Anyone who has access to a 3D printer can print them right from the download and anyone looking to use upcycled materials in lieu of a 3D printer can follow the PDF

Presented as part of the Hexagram Network Garden at the Ars Electronica Festival 2021

Halpenny’s research is ongoing as they experiment with new electronics, materials and fabrication techniques. During this research their work has manifested in artworks such as Slow Serif, a mixed electronic art / bioart installation that slowly compiles a novella on the extractive energy paradigm using MFCs to update and refresh an e-ink screen when their energy has trickled high enough.

Slow Serif Installation
The MFC as installed in Slow Serif

Through Slow Serif Halpenny wants to encourage discussions about slowness, energy consumption, and extraction. Their choice of an e-ink screen suggests a pause between cycles and a point of rest that not only allows us to pause and slowly take in the novella but acts as a resting point for the MFCs and ensures we are not extracting but letting them slowly produce energy that we can harvest without stressing them. To write the novella we must care for the MFCs and let them grow. We cannot coax them into producing more energy and if we are not careful and be patient with them, they may die. The Open-Source MFCs come with an enclosure that helps nurture the mosses and prevent drying out, but as part of the artwork one still needs to water them periodically and let them get fresh air. This slowness is an attempt to act against the paradigm of extractivism, a paradigm which demands immediate, powerful energy at great cost to the environment. It is us as a society that must learn to slow down and rewrite our habits.  

BIOGRAPHY

Matthew Halpenny is an interdisciplinary media artist from Montréal who works between the milieus of biology, society, and technology. Their work seeks to disrupt conventional boundaries around life, evolution, the body, consciousness, and human expression. Such ideas have been explored through use of the human body as a performative instrument, artificial organisms, technological-biological sculpture, and networked cognition performances. Their work is inspired by systems theory, embodied cognition, sense theory, emergent behavior, multi-species being, and media ecologies. They were previosuly a research member at Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture, & Technology, where they worked within the Speculative Life and Critical Materiality research clusters. They are now working as a research member of Hexagram through the Université de Montréal.

Credits : All images are from Matthew Halpenny

You can also follow their creative journey on their website.