Bioluminescent Lamp: Oddity, Novelty, Engineering Challenge

A biolamp design makes a good STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) project.

A few days after I published an article about organic LEDs, I received an email from BioPop, a company that makes bioluminescent “Dino Pets” and accessories. The message asked if I had “considered  that the lamp of the future might actually use living organisms that have been in existence for 3.5 billion years.” She offered to send me a Dino Pet sample for evaluation, and to arrange an interview with Dean Sauer, biologist and co-founder of BioPop. Always eager to learn something about science and technology, I accepted both offers.


The Dino Pet is a transparent plastic container filled with water and a colony of dinoflagellates, a species of plankton that glows in the dark when agitated. The directions said that the “dinos” need a few days to adjust their circadian rhythm to the new time zone. I placed the Dino Pet near a window that receives indirect light (as per the instructions), and after the transition period I took it into a dark room and shook the container. Sure enough the Dino Pet glowed, but only while being agitated. (There was a faint afterglow, but not much.) With high levels of agitation, the glow was more intense. Either way, it was a nice light for ambiance but not something usable for reading or working. Here’s what it looks like:

Dino Pet by BioPop from BioPop on Vimeo.

Fast forward to my interview with Dean Sauer, where my first question addressed the feasibility of a bioluminescent lamp competing with LED lighting. Right away he acknowledged that the Dino Pet is not aiming for that market. Instead, it’s a piece of living art that’s intended to spark an interest in science and technology. Someday these experiments with bioluminescence could produce a working lamp comparable to an LED light, but for now it’s a novelty piece. The great thing about pure scientific research is that it could lead to a new technology someday in the future, even if the knowledge doesn’t appear useful today. You’re reading this article on an electronic device that exists only because a hundred years ago, a few people in lab coats wondered what an atom was made of.

As such, this article will be a departure from my usual number crunching “energy out vs energy in” analysis. Efficiency is not the goal here. But there’s still an engineering problem…

The Challenge

Engineers at BioPop have been experimenting with ways to continually agitate the dinos so they’ll produce a steady glow. Obviously a small electric motor with a propeller would do the job, but it’s not the most elegant solution. Here’s one design that BioPop is evaluating. (Mr. Sauer allowed me to share the picture but asked me not to describe how it works.)

BioPop is also collaborating with research scientists who are working with other luminous bacteria and genetically engineered bioluminescent plants. At this point nobody has measured the bioenergetics, but that’s planned for the future.

Project-Based Learning

As a teacher, my greatest reward is seeing the proverbial light bulb go on when a student learns something new. Here’s a chance to make that a literal light bulb! I propose an interdisciplinary STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) project for elementary/middle school kids. Teams would be challenged to design an aesthetically pleasing lamp that stays lit while using a small amount of input energy. Some of the design constraints include:

  • Dinoflagellates are living organisms. They have temperature and nutritional requirements that must be maintained. (See the FAQ for more info.)

  • Dinos “recharge” with natural daylight.

  • Greater turbulence will cause the dinos to give off a brighter light, but for a shorter duration.

  • Excessive turbulence can harm or kill the dinos.

  • Dinos will reproduce indefinitely, but every 1-3 months they need fresh seawater (supplied by BioPop).

Design teams may consist of these student experts: a biologist, an artist, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, and a manufacturing engineer. Each expert researches his/her part of the project and enlightens the rest of the team with the knowledge they gained. The project could include timelines (project management), design reviews (oral and visual communication), progress reports (written communication), and experiments (STEM skills).

If you’re a teacher who uses this as a project, please share your project and results with us. And if you’re an engineer (professional or hobbyist), feel free to post your design ideas here too.

Images and video courtesy of BioPop