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Tomato vines power cloud server in Warm Earth exhibition

Exploring the idea of technology entering a symbiotic relationship with nature, design graduate Ilja Schamle has built a cloud server powered by tomato vines.

If it had the potential to knock digits off your electricity bill, would you take up gardening?

An Eindhoven design graduate named Ilja Schamle has long wanted to explore the possibility of technology entering a symbiotic relationship with nature, and her latest creation is raising eyebrows at Milan Design Week.

Dubbed Warm Earth, her exhibit is conceptually based on an apocalyptic future in which humanity must utilise plants as its sole energy source.

Looking like a cross between a modern gaming PC and a plant stand, Schmale’s design uses renewable energy derived from tomato vines to somehow run a fully functioning cloud server. Talk about superfood, eh?

Contained within a traditional server cabinet, nine tomato plants grow in what is effectively a neon purple greenhouse. Aside from being watered by hand, the whole thing is self-sufficient.

Credit: Ilja Schamle

As for the server itself, it’s mounted to the exterior and intrinsically linked to the fruits via a ventilation shaft.

So, where exactly is the power coming from?

Hot air is funnelled inside the installation which keeps the plants healthy and busy. Meanwhile, plant-microbial fuel cells (pioneered by Wageningen University researchers) turn each of them into a sort of natural battery.

The process of photosynthesis – in this case prompted using a solar powered grow lamp – allows the plants to draw energy from the light, converting it into chemical energy which is stored within growth protein reserves.

As electrons are excreted by microbes in the roots, they are caught by a conductor at the base of each plant pot which Schmale describes as an ‘iron and activated carbon grid.’ We’ll take your word for it chief.

Credit: Ilja Schamle

The result of all this ingenuity and countless complications manifests in roughly just enough renewable energy to host a single website – like Thred, for example.

‘Having the whole internet run on plants, it wouldn’t be possible with the way that we’re using servers right now and how much content there is,’ Schamle told Dezeen. ‘It can, however, help us understand how much energy is needed to run these systems and how far detached we are from them.’

For some context, the average server (with no nutritional value) will consume between 500 and 1000 watts an hour, and yearly global emission tolls often climb above those in the aviation industry.

Nevertheless, we’re not in a position to start utilising veggie powered servers on a wide scale just yet, but researchers are working on scaling up the technology and making it more effective.

There’s already talk of Schmale’s design being expanded to generate 3.2 watts of electricity per square meter of planting, and building rooftop server spaces to generate the power for small buildings.

Beyond the exhibit at Milan Design Week, other attempts at integrating plants and tech have seen researchers successfully grow conductive wires through leaf structures, and create natural lamps by injecting plants with firefly enzymes.

If we’re handing out prizes for originality though, Schmale’s striking and fully functioning tomato server definitely takes first prize – unless someone can actually develop a carrot to help us see in the dark.


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