Marjan Van Aubel wants to transform every surface of your home into a beautiful power source. The Dutch designer thinks tables or windows shouldn’t be inert, so she built ones that charge your phone as well. Her Current Table and Current Window are made from solar cells that use colour to generate electricity. “Tables are this big empty space, a surface that’s not being used a lot. I saw their potential to be an independent power source, wherever you want to have it,” she says.
Van Aubel, who as amongst the speakers at WIRED Energy, developed her dye-sensitised solar cells while researching her product design dissertation at the Royal College of Art in London. They use the properties of colour to create a current, like photosynthesis. Different colours provide different levels of power; orange is the most efficient and blue is among the least.
Van Aubel’s Current Window is made of brightly coloured stained glass and are scalable, because more surface area equals more energy. The Current Table 2.0 was developed in collaboration with engineer Peter Krige. Nanoparticles of titanium oxide are in this glass, which is dyed orange. The colour helps the particles absorb all ambient light. They then release electrons, creating a current that’s stored in a battery. This way, the table also works under diffuse light – and it doesn’t need to be outdoors to generate power. You can connect an app to the table, to track how much energy it’s storing and learn when and where it works best.
To manufacture these products on a large scale, Van Aubel founded Caventou in 2015; a company that works to integrate solar technology into our everyday lives. “I’ve always been fascinated by solar cells because they take on sunlight – which is free and available for everyone – and turns that into electricity,” she says. Her pieces have been exhibited in the V&A and London Design Museum and she was also named Designer of The future 2017 for her solar cell crystal lights, in collaboration with Swarovski and Design Miami.
Her windows are tables are just the beginning. “My ideal house of the future would have power sources across all surfaces,” she says. “You don’t want to live in this completely glass building so I’m looking at using different materials, like fabric.”
The cost of solar panels has dropped over the past 60 years, whilst efficiency has risen. The problem is, they are not well integrated into buildings, and people don’t want ugly things, Van Aubel argues. “People often have solar panels out of guilt for the environment, and that’s the wrong way of thinking,” she says. “Making solar desirable is the only way to combat climate change, which is one of the biggest challenge of our time.”
Coming at this problem from a designer’s perspective, Van Aubel sees the importance of appearance. “With design at the core, you can make it work and look the best. It shouldn’t be a last minute thought of ‘oh it needs to be nice as well so let’s change it a bit’,” she says.
Still, style doesn’t overshadow substance with Aubel’s products. “We consider the sustainability of everything we use,” she says. Wood is very sustainable as it will grow back, whilst aluminium is made using a high temperature, but is very durable. Glass is very sustainable because you can reuse it again. “It’s important to consider what will happen when it’s installed in the house, too.”
Van Aubel’s next question is: what can she do with the power? “Now, you can power your phone with my products, which is nice, but also a bit gimmicky,” Van Aubel admits. “I want to make more of an impact.” She champions the idea of locally stored energy, so it doesn’t have to bounce back to the grid. “I’m currently working on a pavilion… and everything within it is harvesting electricity.”