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The Energy Collection

Imagine if every object worked as a solar cell? Marjan van Aubel’s graduate collection from London’s Royal College of Art works from this very concept.

By Katie Dominy / 19-07-2012

At the recent summer show at London’s Royal College of Art, Marjan van Aubel’s project The Energy Collection was gaining a lot of interest for its ability to enable everyday objects to absorb energy from daylight.

Showcased as a medical-style cabinet that is designed to collect and store the energy, van Aubel has created a collection of glassware that is layered with a special dye that attracts energy – so whether the glass is being used, or merely standing on a shelf, it will be constantly gathering energy.

We spoke to Van Aubel about her background and how this led to the project.

“I was brought up in a family of chemists. From childhood I was interested in 'developing new materials and ideas'. During my previous studies at DesignLAB, a small department of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, I developed a cross-disciplinary way of working with a scientific approach. I borrowed things from other fields such as forensic research, biology and sociology. Alongside studying design, I took a minor in quantum physics at the University of Amsterdam.  

“The Energy Collection started when I was doing research for my dissertation about future possibilities and applications of colour. I found the Dye Synthesized Solar Cells (DSSC) technique that uses the properties of colour to generate an electronic current. Different colours mean different properties. Each colour has its own wavelength and collects different currents according to their place in the colour spectrum. For example red is more efficient than blue and the darker the colour, the more light, and thus energy, it absorbs.
“I was fascinated by this technique that can be applied to glass or flexible surfaces. Glass has the advantage that it is see through and the light can be absorbed by both sides which makes it more efficient. The production process of DSSC is cheaper than current solar cells and they function under diffuse light, which means they don’t need direct sunlight. I see a lot of potential in this technique, as it the first time solar cells can be used indoors as will as being aesthetically pleasing.
“The Energy Collection shows that all objects made from glass could all be solar cells.The entire time that they are not in use – just standing in a cabinet or somewhere else – they collect energy.  This is a new way of looking at energy harvesting and adds to a mentality change of how we deal with energy production and consumption. I strongly believe that design can contribute to a change in people’s way of thinking. Objects are able to tell stories and have the ability to change someone’s behaviour. This could be done by thinking about an object's material, its use or production process.”

Marjan van Aubel has an impressive list of collaborative partners - we asked her how she found them.
“First I contacted Nicholas Henchoz from the EPFL+ECAL Lab (part of EPFL, Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in cooperation with ECAL, University of art and design Lausanne). He helped me a lot and put me in contact with Michael Graetzel’s lab and arranged for me to work there to learn how to make the cells myself. It was difficult to get into the lab as Michael Graetzel has been nominated for a Nobel Prize twice, making him very popular.

"Nicholas also put me touch with Solaronix, a DSSC manufacturer in Lausanne who produce the cells. I also worked with Imperial College, who are neighbours of the Royal College of Art. Therefore it was easy to get in touch with the college’s Dr. Brian O’Regan, who is the co-inventor of DSCC.”
We asked van Aubel how she saw The Energy Collection evolving - is there a commercial outcome?
“The more glasses you have, the more energy can be collected; so it becomes interesting if The Energy Collection is used on a larger scale. In restaurants or in bars where there is a lot of tableware, the glassware could generate the energy to light the whole restaurant. My plan for the future is to find a collaborator to develop this. I want to begin working with some restaurants and bars, customising the shelves and glassware.”

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