Natural Fuse (2008)

Networked plant pots that form a collective carbon sink

Natural Fuse creates a city-wide network of electronically-assisted plant-pots that act both as energy providers and as circuit breakers to prevent carbon footprint overload, helping communities manage their collective energy usage and carbon footprint.

Natural Fuse shop, San Sebastian, 2010

Natural Fuse is a micro-scale CO2 monitoring and overload protection framework that works locally and globally, harnessing the carbon-sinking capabilities of plants. A power socket enables people to power or recharge their electrical appliances and devices while the plant’s growth offsets the carbon footprint of the energy expended. Since typical energy use requires more than one plant to offset an appliance’s carbon footprint, Natural Fuses are networked so that unused carbon offsetting capacity in the network as a whole can be accounted for as necessary. For example, a low-wattage lamp might need 5 plants to offset its carbon, but so long as there are four other plants on the network not currently being used, the collective carbon footprint is not affected.

Natural Fuse unit

Natural Fuses 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. By networking them together, the units can “borrow” excess capacity from other units not currently being used in order to share their capacity and take advantage of carbon-sinking-surplus in the system as a whole, since it is likely that 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 electricity capacity.

Natural Fuse controls

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 shop, New York City, 2009

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).

Natural Fuse shop INDAF, Seoul, 2010

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 units
Natural Fuse units

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.

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.

Natural Fuse shop, New York City, 2009

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?

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? We proposed that the dried dead plants could be used to weave new Natural Fuse plant pots.

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!

For a deeper discussion about the project and its concepts, see Networking Overload, with Potplants - An interview about the Natural Fuse project, Matthew Fuller's interview with Usman Haque.

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.