Microbial Fuel Cell Workshop

Earlier this month I ran a workshop at the Civic Art Lab, an annual pop-up lab in NYC that focuses on design and sustainability. My workshop was titled, “Powered by Muck: A Microbial Fuel Cell Workshop” and was a culmination of a few different ideas that I’ve had for awhile.

My first introduction to microbial fuel cells was when I attended a workshop at the Citizen Science Lab in Pittsburgh. Along with the friend who I had convinced to come with me, we were the only non-chaperone adults in the class. However, doing hands-on activities is a worthwhile endeavor at any age and is a great way to understand complex ideas through putting something together. Recently in my own research, I have been trying to wrestle with tackling issues (and paradoxes) of what it means to design and develop technologies in a sustainable manner. Where do we even begin in asking these questions????

Thus, this workshop came about as a way to ask questions about what might alternative energy infrastructures look like when we ask questions through the emerging technology of microbial fuel cells. This workshop was half design activity + half hands on demo.

For the design activity, I created some materials to help scaffold the process. This came from previous experience based on another workshop I taught (DIY ToS – terms of service) where there were wayyyy too many options for people to pursue that given the limited amount of time, it felt hard and stressful for many participants to come up with what they wanted to work on.

Since I wasn’t sure what the technical set up for the space would be like (and it’s always nice to have information to take home), I created this one-page zine that was essentially what I would have included in slides. Additionally, the one-page zine format allows for a full page spread in the “middle” of the zine. Here I decided to create a tutorial for making MFCs based off of a lot of other tutorials + my own trials and errors.


The design activity consisted of a set of cards that asked participants to create a speculative design that incorporates microbial fuel cells as a way to ask questions about what a world that uses this technology might look like. The whole “game” consists of five decks, Design, Topic, Source, Scale of Interaction, and Crisis. The participants choose one from each deck (randomly or not), except for the crisis cards, and have to create a design that incorporates all of those aspects. There is also an accompanying worksheet to help people think through. Then, because designs don’t always work the way you hope they would, halfway through, people are dealt a crisis card which may or may not derail their design. They then have to iterate on their design to accommodate this “crisis”.


Overall it seemed that this activity went pretty well. The scaffolding really seemed to help with considering options and generating ideas. It may also have been that the group was fairly primed for this type of activity – as those who attended were folks who were interested in design and sustainability. Among the attendees included, grad students from architecture, education, cosmetology, and STS, an urban farmer, a community organizer from the LES, artists, and educators. One suggestion was to include blank cards for each of the areas so that people could feel more compelled to add their own additions to each category.

The second part of the workshop was the building of the microbial fuel cells. This was something that I have been worrying over since I got the workshop acceptance email in August. Why? Because in addition to figuring out how to build this fuel cell from faded memories from the workshop I attended, I also had to source all the materials and figure out how to bring them from Ithaca to New York City. In retrospect, it all worked out! There was a moment when I was shoveling mud in a secluded part of Prospect Park into a bucket and shovel I had packed with me that I wanted to give up. But I persevered and lugged my very heavy 2.5 gallon bucket of mud back to my friend’s apartment. I would also like to give thanks to the stranger who helped me lug my cart of materials up the stairs of the Canal Street subway station.  I was too self-conscious to let them know that among the items in the cart included a bucket of mud when they asked why my cart was so heavy and just responded, “Materials for a workshop”.

Overall this part seemed to go fairly well as well. I had spent a month and a half prototyping different versions of the battery to figure out how to streamline the process and it seemed to work pretty well. I also sourced some LCD clocks that could be powered by super low voltage. Though most of them did NOT wind up getting powered during workshop 🙁 , most people seemed to enjoy this activity, and in general understand the concept of microbial fuel cells.

This workshop was an important lesson for me in workshop design and teaching. While I would say that I have extensive experience in teaching classes where people build things, this was an interesting class where I wanted to combine a hands-on activity with another activity that would ask people to think more speculatively and critically about the technology they engage with now or in the near future. Furthermore, this workshop has helped me examine some next steps in my own research by considering how design methods can be incorporated into thinking about environmental issues in technology. I can see one line of work that uses speculative methods as a way of understanding how we can make sense of grappling with the weird, hard issues that come up in the Anthropocene.

Soil Sampling Update: Spore Stepper

Since conceptualizing the shoe that takes in soil samples, I have taken steps to implement this idea into an object.

Precedent Works

In looking at precedent works, there are a wide range of projects that have embedded technology into footwear. A common thread throughout these projects is that the functionality of the shoe depends on the movement of the wearer in order to actuate it.


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The Nanohana Heels is a project by artist Sputniko! in collaboration with shoewear designer, Masaya Kushino. This pair of shoes was developed in 2012 following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan during Spring of 2011. As demoed in a video about the shoe, with each step into the earth, rapeseeds (nanohana in Japanese) are dispensed from the stiletto point of the heel. According to Sputniko’s website, Belarusian scientists have determined that rapeseed blossoms are able to absorb radioactive substances. This research was done on lands affected by Chernobyl in the 2000’s to consider remediation of lands. By planting rapeseeds with each step, the shoes seek to question how to heal the land damaged by the nuclear disaster through action.

For the soil sampling shoe, an opposite effect is desired, in which matter is collected rather than dispensed.  Also instead of each step leading to soil collection, the action will have to be spaced out through out the duration of the walk, otherwise a lot of soil would be collected. Based on prior research on soil sampling, 40 mL of soil is suggested for a sample. This sample would then need to be located near the foot, whether directly in the shoe, or perhaps near the foot around the ankle.


E-Traces by designer Lesia Trubat documents the movement of dancers through sensors placed on the ballet shoe. This movement is then sent via wi-fi to a smart phone which then presents the traces performed by the dancer. This project seeks to create a digital artifact of the performance to function as a visual image to allow the dancer to study their movements in order to learn and improve from this tracking.

In considering the tracking function of E-Trace, this could provide an understanding for development of a tracking function for the soil sampling shoe. This would allow the shoe to determine when to collect soil, based on where on it’s position of a space, such as a park or trail.



Roller shoes are a type of footwear with an embedded wheel, allowing the wearer to glide across a surface when the weight is shifted onto the heel. Roger Adams, the founder of roller shoe company Heelys, patented this design in 1999 and has geared it towards the youth market ever since. Based on the company website, he “cut open a pair of sneakers, inserted a skateboard wheel, and Heelys were born!”. Current Heelys sneakers also feature a removable wheel which would allow the wearer to step without rolling. Although Heelys and other roller shoes are popular due to its recreational aspects by embedding a normal shoe with the potential for rollersport activity on any flat, hard surface, this has come not without controversy.  From frustrated pedestrians and shopkeepers to concerned pediatricians, roller shoes is seen as a dangerously annoying and annoyingly dangerous footwear. However, even almost 17 years since this product come onto the market, several retailers still carry roller shoes in their inventory.

As a precedent work for the soil sampling shoe, roller shoes serve to be an interesting design for how technologies are embedded into the shoe, particular in the heel which makes direct contact to the ground.  The pressure on the heel activates the wheel in the roller shoe, allowing the wearer to glide or roll across their surface. This insight provides consideration into how the wearer must interact with the soil sample shoe in order to facilitate the collection process. Although the shoe provides a more passive soil collection compared to existing methods, certain actions or gestures must still be performed in considering the interaction design aspects of the object. The soil extracted from the ground for the soil samples collected by the shoe needs to be accessible for analysis, thus can follow the retractibility of the wheel in the roller shoe.

First Iteration

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In the first iteration of the soil sample shoe (working title is “Spore Stepper”), a circuit was built onto an existing shoe to allow soil sampling to occur. A circuit that controlled a servo motor was built that was controlled by a pressure sensor switch. A scoop and collection bag are built on top of the servo motor so that when the pressure sensing switch is closed, the servo motor would pick up dirt using the scoop attachment and deposit the dirt into the bag located directly behind the scoop. This circuit was then fastened to the a Vans Classic Slip on shoe by using zip ties to connect the breadboard where the microcontroller and some of the components are held to the flat part on top of the foot. The design of this shoe allowed for easy access to fasten the breadboard onto the surface. The switch was installed inside the shoe where the ball of the wearer’s foot would reside.  This would allow the switch to be activated when pressure was placed at the front of the shoe, such as when the user is mid-step. The servo motor is then placed on the inner side of the shoe, adhered to the shoe using hot glue. The scoop attachment is angled downwards, so that soil would automatically get pushed into the scoop when the scoop is made. As the wearer steps, the servo motor is triggered, which dumps the dirt collected onto the scoop into a collection bag located at the other end.


This low-fidelity prototype is an early proof of concept to show a possibility of how a soil collecting device can be attached to a shoe. Although it is functional, several design and technical considerations can be made to refine this prototype. One major design consideration is how to fully integrate the components into the shoe rather than having the components sit on top of the shoe. This would entail building the electronics into the shoe in a more seamless manner. A technical consideration is to use another method of soil collection that would allow the soil to be collected more naturally with the step action of a user, rather than having a servo motor pick up the dirt.  An addition of an inflation bulb such as the ones used for a turkey baster or blood pressure pump would allow for suction without digital components, though placing of this component in the shoe for proper inflation and deflation would be complicated without constant collection happening by the suction. Initial tests with a turkey baster also did not prove to be successful in collecting dirt.

One method to reconsider the soil collection methods is to use soft robotics to move the soil into a collection chamber inside the shoe. The soft robotics would take form of a pneumatic muscle located in the outsole of the shoe that can expand and contract to push the soil into a collection chamber also located in the outsole. The natural pressure from taking a step would push dirt into the entrance of the muscle through the tread. Only when the shoe is ready to collect dirt, through tracking the distance in between the last time of collection or at discretion of the wearer, the muscle will activate to “swallow” dirt into collection.

Although it would still need digital components such as a pump, microcontroller and power source, a soft actuator would be easier to implement into shoe rather than accounting for the full range of motion that is required by the servo motor. At this point in building the prototype, the actual artifact of the shoe was taken into consideration. As a speculative piece, it was important for the object of the shoe to present the potential functionality and conceptual elements of the piece, more so than to be a robust, efficient model (at least this is what I am telling myself).

To test out this method, I followed instructions set forth by the Soft Robotics Toolkit, an open resource for building soft robotics created by Harvard University and Trinity College Dublin, for building a fiber-reinforced actuator using a cardboard mold. A two part mold was constructed using cardboard pieces and then reinforced by hot glue to prevent leakage.  EcoFlex, a silicon casting material by SmoothFlex, was then prepared according to specifications and poured into the mold. A piece of paper was placed in between the silicon on the top layer to act as a stiffener. This would constrain the actuator to bend in a specific manner rather when it is inflated.

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After curing, the silicon pieces were pulled out and adhered to each other with additional silicon.  Tubing was then inserted inside the actuator to the open chamber, which is then attached to an empty plastic bottle. The empty plastic bottle acted as a impromptu pump to inflate and deflate the silicon actuator.

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By designing this silicon piece in a cylindrical shape with sections to inflate in succession, the actuator would be able to push dirt through a tube. This action would mimic swallowing, with the dirt being deposited in a “stomach”, or a storage area to be held until the walk is over and the collected dirt can be obtained for analysis. In considering how the cylindrical actuator will be designed, the work of F.J. Chen et al. for their work, “Soft Actuator Mimicking Human Esophageal Peristalsis for a Swallowing Robot” was referenced. This research developed a soft actuator that replicated a human esophagus to swallow by building a silicon body with horizontal chambers that would inflate in succession to mimic the muscles utilized in a human model. Although this design yields a model that is larger and more complex than what is needed for the soil sample shoe, it provides a basis for the possible functionality of implementing a soft actuator in the prototype.


In considering the final form of the overall shoe, designs from fashion footwear are referenced as examples to convey the concept and house the collection method in the shoe. DEGEN, a fashion company based in Brooklyn, New York created a line of outdoor inspired footwear in 2014 that incorporated elements of hiking boots in an unexpected manner. The result is a shoe that has a platform heels, with flashes of bright color at the heel, trim around the sole, and in the laces. The use of a fur trim and nylon cord gives the shoe an “outdoor” aesthetic, while the choice of color and chunky design of the treads read as more playful. The overall form sends a series of mixed messages due to this combination as a fashionable interpretation of a hiking shoe. The playful manner in which DEGEN approached designing the shoe results in an interesting object that can be utilized in considering the final form for the soil sampling shoe.

The “Jagger Platform Oxford” by design label, Jefferey Campbell presents another approach to footwear design that can be co-opted in the soil sample shoe. In this design, an oxford shoe has been extended at the outsole with a section created out of clear acrylic which creates a storage space for sequins. This seems to be a more humane version of the platform shoes of the 1970’s popular at discos in which clear heels could be filled with gold fish. Parts of the heel for these platform shoes would be removable to place, feed, or even replace the fish as a decorative item within the shoe 🙁 .

By designing a portion of the soil sampling shoe to be clear and transparent, it would allow for the process for collecting the soil sample to be apparent, yet housed within the shoe.  In following the designs for the 1970’s clear heeled shoes, parts of the heel could also be designed to be removable to retrieve the soil sample at the end of a walk.

Prototypes: Forage Storage Pt. 1

Over the past few days I have started prototyping, starting with Forage Storage – ways to collect physical data (mushrooms, substrates, interesting things) on the body.  Part of this prototype process was also to get an idea of how to combine some of the materials together and building models with some functionality.

One of the prototypes was the Hat Basket – a hat that could also be converted into a basket bag. This would be a helpful device to keep your hands free as you scrounge around in the forest, or can be converted into a carrying device if you realize that you want to collect something but did not carry a bag.

forage storage 1Here are some preliminary drawings that I made to write down some notes and address some design ideas.

I sewed the head part using a cycling cap pattern I found online.  I used ripstop nylon and window screen together which was much easier to sew together than I had expected. IMG_7013

I then safety pinned the head on to a base that I had made using wire with “spokes” going outwards to a larger circle to form a brim. The pointy bits were covered with electrical tape and window screen material was sewn around that piece to cover the brim. Handles are made out of nylon webbing and attached with safety pins so they can be repositioned as necessary, rather than sewing it directly down. IMG_7015

It’s not the most beautiful hat, but it does fit on my head!


When it needs to become a carrying device, the brim can be flipped up and become a basket of sorts for your materials. In this case, I foraged materials in the lab to carry so most of the things are like office supplies. IMG_7043

A top view of me wearing the hat with stored materials. As you can see, it can fit a decent amount of things. IMG_7037

If the hat needs to be carried like a basket, the hat can be removed and inverted so that the materials sink into the head piece. The handles can then be used to hold the bag.   IMG_7044

This prototype was an interesting exploration into materials usage, along with modeling out an inquiry of making a convertible hat.

Knife Earring


This knife earring was made for a project in my fabrication class. The design for a retractable blade that can be concealed as a fashionable accessory is based on recent national events and my continual concern of personal safety as a woman and person of color.  Also there seems to be potential for functional earrings or ears as storage space for tools/devices (Earables?). Although there are some design issues that need to be resolved, the overall concept can be expressed through the 3D printed prototype (above). img_5878

I made a paper version of the casing in order to figure out the basic design and sizing. The earring hardware is from the jewelry section of an arts and crafts store and the blade is an X-acto #11 blade. This blade was chosen because of its small size and the opening hole on the base that can be used to pivot around an extruded cylinder that is sandwiched between the two casing pieces.


Above is a screenshot of the casing that was designed in 123D Design. It was my first time using this particular 3D modeling program and I think it’s okay. The interface is clear and simple although I couldn’t find some of the features I needed such as snapping to midpoint. I designed the model so that it is held together by an M3x12 bolt and nut. The model was then printed on a Folger Tech RepRap 2020 Prusa i3 which I had assembled for the class.

Prototype: Fungi Specimen Collector

In going out on forays with the mushroom club, I wanted to explore the idea of building a wearable device that can be used to collect fungal specimen.


This past weekend I went to a walk in Hartwood Acres to look for various small brown mushrooms and molds. Here is an inventory breakdown of what I usually bring on one of these walks.

  • Basket:
    • egg carton – to collect small specimen
    • wax paper bags
    • foldable knife
    • little shovel (actually I don’t have one, but I should get one)
    • field guide
    • camera
    • compass/whistle
    • rain coat (depending on weather)
    • water bottle
    • snack

Using a basket is nice since everything is within easy reach, it’s light and has a rigid structure so you can put a fleshy soft thing like a mushroom and it will still kind of support it. Other types of bags are fine, including mesh bags or paper brown bags, but obviously not as cool as the basket. Fun fact about this particular basket – this was the basket my parents got when they went apple picking for the first time ever when they moved to New York City from Taipei in the late 80’s. So the sentimental value of this particular basket for me is very high.

With initial sketches, I wanted to incorporate a form of the geographical annotation tool that I had in the water quality monitoring suit that I had sketched out in Iowa. This would allow the user to “make a note” of where a certain sample was collected over the course of their walk. I am also interested in including other sensors such as soil probes and thermometers that can obtain additional information about a location when collecting a specimen.


For design ideas and inspiration, I have been looking at a variety of vests used for fly fishing. These vests are used for outdoor purposes and designed for easy access while the the users’ hands are occupied with fishing activities(?). Here is a selection of vests that I found interesting in terms of material usage or construction methods.

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Iowa Lakeside Residency Pt 3: Citizen Science Initiatives

One of the main points of interest for attending this residency was learning more about citizen science initiatives, especially for monitoring water quality.  Lake Okoboji, the lake the lab resides on has been running Cooperative Lakes Area Monitoring Project (CLAMP) since 1999. CLAMP is a volunteer program that monitors areas of the lakes regularly between May and September. img_3335

On my last day of the residency, I was able to go out with Stan, Dick and Leroy, three CLAMP volunteers while they collected water samples, turbidity and temperature at various points on the lake.  After picking up a cooler filled with prepped bottles and equipment for water testing, we set off on Leroy’s boat early in the morning to visit the 5 different spots for testing. Samples were collected at each point and turbidity was measured via Secchi disk and recorded on a datasheet.  In between collection sites, I was able to talk to and ask these volunteers about their motivations for participating in CLAMP. along with the changes that they’ve witnessed in and around the lake throughout the years. img_3336 Upon returning to the lab, we filtered out the samples using this device which drained the water onto a paper filter that is stored in a tube for later processing by the chemists at the lab. img_3186

Along with CLAMP, a hydrological buoy keeps tracks of changes in the lake’s waters. Every ten minutes, the buoy will relay info via radio regarding humidity, temperature, turbidity, wind direction, barometric pressure… etc. The info is online and is available as an app that is connected with other buoys in the world using the Global Lake Ecology Observation Network (GLEON).

I was also able to speak with the Education Coordinator and resident chemist who tests for water quality in assessing what possible challenges they face with water quality monitoring. In thinking along the lines of what tools scientists / field researchers might need out in the field, I made a really low fi prototype of a a suit that a researcher might wear for water quality monitoring (while swimming). This suit would be able to collect various data points surrounding dissolved oxygen, turbidity and water sampling, but also has a “Geographic Annotation Button”, which would be a way to record the GPS points of where a researcher is at the time of collection. This idea came out of observing the volunteers having to rely on visual cues and a clipboard to assess their position and wondering if there was a possible way of “marking” a point when your hands are occupied. The design and placement of sensors on the prototype to some degree is inspired by anatomical placement of organs/bones on the human body. With this design, the suit can draw comparisons to ideas of how our bodies can connect with technology and the environment.

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Some challenges in building this project would be waterproofing the electronics for prototyping and building. I did some initial tests using a bag sealer to contain a flexible textile circuit. However, this might be beyond my skill range and would need to consult some engineering folks on the feasibility of this project.


Hike out to a kettle lake. Doesn’t really have to do with citizen science initiatives, but is an interesting geological formation left over from the glaciers.

Iowa Lakeside Lab Residency Pt 2: Wearable Computing for Plants

Besides the portable workspace project,  I did some other lil projects while I was at Lakeside Lab. One of these projects was thinking through making wearable devices for plants. During my residency I went on many walks in the prairie, some solo, but some with biologists who were able to put names to the plants we observed and connect how these different plants and animals function to create this diverse ecosystem. The idea for a plant wearable stemmed from wanting to observe how a single plants (in this case, milkweed) functions over the course of a day.  This inquiry also posed an interesting design challenge in how to design a “wearable” for a plant. (It is debatable whether or not a plant can actually wear something…)

img_3192 Some bend sensors made using Kobakant’s tutorials that will go on near the base of the plant. Changes in resistance will be recorded as the plant bends throughout the day. img_3197

The metrics I decided to record for the plant included UV input and movement. Luckily I had a sewable UV sensor and accelerometer from Adafruit in my collection of things. Although the bend sensors are great because they are easy to build and customize, it is helpful to have some more complex sensors. To make it easier to assemble the circuit for the plant while I was out in the field, I made these little mounts for the sensors so it would be easier to clip/sew/staple the components together.


I tested different versions of the bend sensor, including a knitted one that didn’t work so well.. img_3321

Here are the components strapped on to the milkweed using twist ties (thanks, Walmart) and connections made via staples and wires. There is a Mayfly data logger at the base in a little plastic bag that reads the data input every few seconds or so and stores it in a handy memory card in a .csv file. The milkweed was selected because of its sturdy nature and that it is an important food source for monarch butterflies and other insects, which might give it reason to want to observe various aspects of its movement throughout a time period. It was interesting to build the circuit onto the plant while standing out in the field – the portable desk did come into use to check the continuity of my circuitry and as a prepping platform.

Unfortunately something happened with the connections of the datalogger and stopped capturing data about 1 hour into the installation and this error was not caught until later.  However this project has potential to continue as a way to hone a process down and work with botanists/ecologists/biologists to collect data that may serve their research and as a design project to speculate how non-humans can wear technological devices.

Closed Loop Plant system

One of my classes this semester is working on creating speculative habitat systems for plant life on Mars.  Our recent project was to create a closed loop system. My team decided to work on a “Vertical Plant Parfait” in which three different biomes can live symbiotically in a glass container. On the top we have a plant/photosynthesizing layer, the middle is fungi/decomposing layer, and the bottom is the algae/water layer.  We have sensors to detect health of each layer, and a pump runs through the system to provide nutrient/water to the plant and fungi layer. A longer writeup can be seen here.IMG_2371

Plant hammock — suspends our plant while allow organic matter(dead leaves) to pass onto decomposing layer.


External LED light on our setup. Sensors are run on a Raspberry Pi.  IMG_2363

How did we get our shelving through the jar? We made some “hinged” laser cut pieces. This piece was for our fungus layer and has window screen material layered on the top and bottom. IMG_2388

Algae was pumped in at the end.

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Team Member George made a cool Slackbot for our plant! You can ask for a picture!


Our oyster mushrooms are starting to come in and it’s excitingggg!!!!