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The future of the ‘City of Lights’ could be biochemical lighting

French start-up “Glowee” is making advancements in alternative light sources to address energy consumption in France

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The Eiffel tower is illuminated at night fall in Paris, France, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014.

Michel Euler, Associated Press

Forty miles southwest from the heart of Paris lies the city of Rambouillet. Its population of roughly 26,000 people (according to France’s most recent census) is learning to coexist with millions of new neighbors, as they begin the slow transition from electricity to bioluminescent bacteria lighting their city.

In an attempt to combat light pollution, French CEO Sandra Rey (featured on Forbes’ 2017 ‘30 Under 30’ list) founded “Glowee” in late 2014.

According to the Glowee website, the company’s goal is “to bring nature back into the city by creating a special link with its lighting system, to awaken citizens to the power of nature and to encourage a change in consumption methods thanks to a new philosophy of less aggressive and more harmonious lighting.”

The “City of Lights” — and the country of France as a whole — has been addressing its energy consumption and effect on the planet primarily by reducing or eliminating harmful energy sources, as outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement. Light pollution remains a prevalent issue in cities worldwide, however, and Rey aims to aid in its prevention.

“Our goal is to change the way in which cities use light,” Rey said to the BBC. “We want to create an ambiance that better respects citizens, the environment and biodiversity — and to impose this new philosophy of light as a real alternative.”

In an interview with CNN, Rey explained that by utilizing bacteria closely related to that which is found in bioluminescent, deep-sea creatures, Rey and her team are able to replicate biochemical reactions that occur naturally in the ocean.

“We’re using genes, the coding for the biochemical reaction of bioluminescence inside bacteria. … We took these genes and put them into the most common bacteria we use in the lab. Then we ‘grow’ the light.”

One Time Out article describes how the signature, turquoise glow of Glowee’s light bulbs and stickers comes from Aliivibrio Fischeri, the naturally occurring, exponentially growing bacteria strain that can be collected and further modified. Maintenance consists of providing oxygen, food and an environment that said bacteria can grow in, keeping costs of lighting signs, streets and cities low.

“Instead of replacing the bulbs in street lamps, we created a whole new approach,” Rey said to Time Out. “With this new approach, we found the solution we have today.”

While Rambouillet is far from fully bathed in a biological glow, Rey hopes to move it and cities across the globe towards a more gentle, renewable source of light. BBC reports that Glowee is currently coordinating with 40 cities across France, Belgium, Switzerland and Portugal, and the start-up has received support from both the European Commission and France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

Transitioning to a biochemically-lit, urban environment will demand more than Glowee’s original stickers and lamps, however.

“We know that the shop-windows market is now very dated, and we just need to have a bit more intensity to get there … but we also have a lot of interest in the construction industry, and energy industry,” Rey said to CNN.

Long-term integration into furniture and architecture is what Rey foresaw for bioluminescent bacteria, but as of 2022, Glowee lighting can only last days or weeks before needing proper maintenance and/or replacement, BBC reports. Despite the long road ahead, Rey is still optimistic.

“We are advancing little by little,” she said to the BBC. “But we’ve made enormous steps already and our philosophy of light is a response to the crisis humanity is facing.”