Natural Fuse (project site: naturalfuse.org)

"Natural fuse" is a micro-scale carbon dioxide overload protection framework that works locally and globally, harnessing the carbon-sinking capabilities of plants. Generating electricity to power the electronic products that populate our lives has consequences on the amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere, which in turn has detrimental environmental effects. The carbon footprint of the power used to run these devices can be offset by the natural carbon-capturing processes that occur as plants absorb carbon dioxide and grow. "Natural Fuse" units take advantage of this phenomena. They are now distributed in households in London, New York and San Sebastian.

Natural Fuse

Natural Fuses allow only a limited amount of energy to be expended; that amount is limited by the amount of CO2 that can be absorbed by the plants that are growing in the system - natural "circuit breakers". By networking them together, the plants are able to share their capacity and take advantage of carbon-sinking-surplus in the system since not all Natural Fuses will be in use at any one time.

Natural Fuse

If people cooperate on energy expenditure then the plants thrive (and everyone may use more energy); but if they don't then the network starts to kill plants, thus diminishing the network's electricity capacity.

Natural Fuse

Each Natural Fuse unit consists of a houseplant and a power socket. The amount of power available to the socket is limited by the capacity of the plant to offset the carbon footprint of the energy expended: if the appliance you plug in draws so much power that it requires more carbon-offsetting than available then the unit will not power.

The problem is that even low-power light bulbs draw more power than can be comfortably offset by a single plant. Therefore, all the units are connected together via the internet so that they can communicate and determine how much excess capacity of carbon-offsetting is available within the community of units as a whole.

Natural Fuse

For example, if you use an appliance that draws 4 watts, and there are 6 Natural Fuse units out in the community that are not currently drawing power then you can switch on your appliance at full capacity and comfortably offset the carbon footprint of your appliance by borrowing from the other units. (Calculations of course include the energy cost of powering the electronics inside the unit itself).

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Building on what is known as prisoner's dilemma in game theory, the project is as much about the structures of participation as it is about energy conservation.

Rather than just having an "on/off" switch for your appliance, you are provided with a "selfless/selfish" switch. If you choose "selfless" then the unit will provide only enough power that won't harm the community's carbon footprint. But, if the carbon sequestering capacity of the community is currently low, the electricity may switch off after a few seconds - though it could be on long enough for what you need to do.

Natural Fuse

If on the other hand you absolutely must have electricity (e.g. you hear an intruder in your apartment and you *must* switch on your light at full power) then you might want to choose "selfish" - which will give you as much power as your appliance needs. BUT, if you harm the community's carbon footprint (i.e. it goes from negative to positive) then the Natural Fuse system will KILL SOMEBODY ELSE'S PLANT!

Each unit actually has 3 'lives' to lose, before which a vinegar shot is dispensed to the unlucky plant. So as it loses each 'life' an email is sent both to the owner and the owner that sent a 'kill' signal; this provides the capability to communicate and explai situations to each other prior to final execution of the plant.

Natural Fuse

People's decisions to be selfish or not have a visceral impact on others in the community. By networking Natural Fuses together, people share their capacity and take advantage of carbon-sinking-surplus in the system since not all Natural Fuses will be in use at any one time. If people cooperate on energy expenditure then the plants thrive (and everyone may use more energy); but if they don't then the network starts to kill plants, thus diminishing the network's electrical capacity.

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During research and development we encountered several issues that have affected the design process. These highlight the kinds of challenge faced by "carbon sinking" initiatives in general.

For example, the amount of CO2 that a single houseplant can sink is much smaller than expected. What would you do? Use less energy? Or supersize the fuse? You might need 420 plants to offset your 50W lightbulb!

Second, when a plant dies any carbon sequestered during the growth period is, in the absence of continued sequestration (e.g. by sealing it deep within the earth), soon released back into the atmosphere. A zero-sum situation depends entirely on where the arbitrary boundaries of the system are drawn. What would you do with your plant? Eat it? Bury it? Weave it?

On the unit, there is power-activation switch, which the owners can adjust depending on how much they want to use the energy. There are 3 modes, OFF, SELFLESS and SELFISH.

In "OFF" mode, the system uses minimal energy, turns itself on once every hour. No energy flows to the appliance connected to the unit. As a result, the overall CO2 absorbed in the whole system gradually increases, and the plants in this unit are cared for by the system.

In "SELFLESS" mode, the unit gives power to appliance at a rate that ensures CO2 production and capturing in the entire Natural Fuse system remain in equilibrium. As a result, owner might be able to turn on the lamp for 10 mins a day, depending on status of the whole system and consumption rate of the appliance.

In "SELFISH" mode, the unit gives as much power to appliance as it needsAs a result, the owner can use the appliance as normal but it might cause the whole CO2 absorbed in the system to decrease or even lead to total systematic breakdown. CAUTION: IF SYSTEMATIC BREAKDOWN OCCURS, THE SYSTEM MAY KILL 1 RANDOM UNIT'S PLANTS, AND IT PROBABLY WON'T BE YOUR OWN!


Original project description preserved below:

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Commissioned by the Architectural League and Situated Technologies: Toward the Sentient City, Natural Fuse will be open to the public in Autumn 2009. The purpose is to create a collective "carbon sink", that offsets the amount of energy consumed by the plant owners - a natural "circuit breaker". If people cooperate on their energy expenditure then the plants thrive (and they can all use more energy); but if they don't then the network starts to kill plants, thus diminishing the network's energy capacity.

Natural Fuse

Every seemingly helpful device that a human being uses has its own carbon "footprint" which, in excess, can harm other living beings. Natural Fuse is a micro scale CO2 monitoring and overload protection framework that works locally and globally, harnessing the carbon-sinking capabilities of plants.

Natural Fuse

Natural Fuse allow only a limited amount of energy to be expended in the system; that amount is balanced by the amount of CO2 that can be absorbed by the plants that are growing in the system.

Natural Fuse

In the same way that circuit-breakers are useful for preventing excessive current use, so too can the Natural Fuse plants break the CO2 footprint "circuit". What would you do? Use less energy? Or supersize the fuse?

Natural Fuse

Accompanying the units developed for the project will be a website that enables people and plants to connect (a sort of "social-networking site" for plants); a manual for building your own Natural Fuses based on the Arduino Ethernet platform; and a "shop" that will form part of the exhibition.

Natural Fuse

Part of this project's approach is to raise awareness of energy expenditure and encourage people to collaborate to share their energy use and nurture their plants.

Natural Fuse

Project reference material and notes, updated occasionally.

This Project was made possible with support of The Architectural League of New York as part of the Exhibition, "Situated Technologies: Toward the Sentient City".


Team members:

The project was originally commissioned by the Architectural League of New York and Natural Fuse units are available for rent from the Toward the Sentient City exhibition, at the Urban Center in New York City until November 7, 2009.

November 2013: Please note that Haque Design + Research is now Umbrellium, where more up-to-date information can be found Umbrellium