Using Photosynthetic Dyes, These Glasses Harvest Solar Energy

A young Dutch designer uses emerging solar technology to imbue domestic glassware with the ability to produce electricity.

It’s currently en vogue for designers to refer to themselves as scientists. But for Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel, the claim is legit: The recent product design graduate minored in Quantum Mechanics at the University of Amsterdam. “I have always studied materials and their behaviour,” writes van Aubel, who comes from a family of chemists. “As a researcher, I am curious about what appear to be ordinary things and processes and I am always looking for new links.” Van Aubel’s graduation project, The Energy Collection, imbues one of the most ordinary domestic objects–glassware–with the ability to harvest energy.


“The project started when I was doing research for future possibilities of colour,” van Aubel explains to Co.Design. The 26-year-old became interested in a new technique for solar energy collection developed by a Swiss scientist named Michael Graetzel. In 2009, Graetzel discovered a new type of dye-sensitized solar cell, based on nanocrystalline oxide film. In shorthand, the cells use color to generate electricity the same way plants do. “He discovered that the dye that gives the red or blue colour to berries, gives off an electron when light strikes it,” explains van Aubel on her website. “When the cell is exposed to light, the dye transmits its electrons to the titanium dioxide and releases an electric current.”

Van Aubel’s collection of household glassware is coated in photosynthetic films of all shades (at first glance, the pieces look like they’re filled with colored water). When the glass is left in sunlight–even in diffused sunlight–it absorbs energy. When the glass isn’t in use, it goes back on a special shelf engraved with magnetic tracks that allow users to convert the stored energy as they see fit.

Van Aubel’s collection is nothing short of magical, seamlessly weaving an exotic, novel technology into a collection of familiar objects. She speculates that the glass could see widespread use, as Graetzel’s technology is further refined. “It would be nice if this works on a bigger scale, in restaurant and bars for example where there is a lot of glassware,” she says. “This will be my next step.”

[Images courtesy of Marjan van Aubel; h/t Design Boom]


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.