By Britni Williams & Peter Hassler
In past societies (and even in many rural societies today) there was a closer tie to nature, systems of sustainability inherent to the way people lived and low energy usage. This can be especially evidenced in the home kitchen. Food grown on the home’s land was nourished by rainwater, often collected, and fertilized by waste from nearby animals. The food, harvested by hand, in turn fed people and animals providing a cycle of near-perfect sustainability. The leftover food then was composted ultimately providing soil. Without electricity, natural fire was the main method for cooking, the ashes from the fire ashes dissolving back into the ground.
Furthermore, the harvested rainwater could supply the rest of the dwelling. A full cycle of use and reuse was in effect. In essence a self-sustained ecosystem occupied the space with no electricity usage. Over time the sustainability of the ancient kitchen gave way to modern advances, especially with industrialization and the introduction of electricity in the 19th century.
Cooking over open fire in one room homes or in the great room of larger homes gave way to separate kitchen-rooms and eventually to the use of electricity and energy-hogging appliances. After the Second World War, refrigerator energy consumption rose dramatically, while average energy efficiency declined.
Today, despite advances in sustainable energy, the role of standard electricity supplied by utility companies is unquestioned and alternative energy sources such as wind and solar have not made a sizable impact yet. Today’s kitchens simply rely on standard electricity.
Although today’s kitchen has made great strides in energy efficiency (think ENERGY STAR), appliances and electronics have grown in their share of total energy consumption. In fact, the increase in the number of appliances and electronic gadgets has negated the increase in energy efficiency. This phenomenon is known as the “rebound effect.” There is huge room for improvement in energy efficiency and consumption.
Fast forward into the future and imagine a kitchen that no longer consumes electricity from the grid. Instead, the kitchen of the future produces its own electricity through energy harvesting materials and bio-digesting mechanisms – returning full circle to ancient practices of energy consumption and a self-sustaining ecosystem.
Designers at the Dutch firm Philips have prototyped the “Microbial Home.” Kitchen appliances and fixtures work together in the same system. Waste and garbage is converted into energy. In this closed-loop system waste products from one process are used as energy sources for another. The web site Co.exist describes it so, “the central hub is a ‘bio-digester island’ which has a cutting surface, a gas range, and a bio-digester. Bacteria in the bio-digester feed on organic waste such as vegetable trimmings to produce a methane gas that powers the range and the lights and heats water. Ultimately, this kitchen powers itself.
Other elements of the Microbial Home include a beehive, a light powered by bioluminescent bacteria, and yes, a squatting toilet that captures ‘excreta’ for the methane digester.”
The kitchen of the future can also contain surfaces such as floors and countertops that collect and store enough energy to sustain itself and even distribute energy back into the grid. Engineers at the University of Michigan have created a tiny device to collect energy from vibrations. This could be implemented into the counters, floors, cabinets, cutting boards to capture the motion form knife cutting, for example.
Engineers have also introduced the idea of a flooring called Piezoelectric Flooring. This flooring would harvest energy through the impact of footsteps. The surface would absorb the energy and reuse the energy throughout the space where needed.
Eventually the harnessing of electricity in the kitchen could power entire apartments, homes, building and cities. Imagine the kitchens of a high-rise building working in tandem to provide energy for the entire structure and perhaps eventually the city or producing a profit by feed energy back to the grid.