ASU students showcase energy-capturing device at Biodesign Challenge Summit

ASU students Landon Austill, Gabrielle Nacion, Hannah Wheeler and Lisette Borja participated in the Biodesign Challenge in New York City. Alyssa Henning, an ASU graduate student in biological design, joins them.


Each year, more than 32 million millennials, hipsters and music aficionados attend music festivals in the U.S., camping, clapping and dancing. Just imagine the energy. That’s exactly what a team of students from Stacey Kuznetsov’s Interactive Materials class did when challenged to envision future applications of biotechnology. 

This is the second year that an Arizona State University team has participated in the Biodesign Challenge, a competition that attracts creative biology, engineering and art students from 24 universities across the world. Taking the term “people power” quite literally, the ASU team — Landon Austill, Gabrielle Nacion, Hannah Wheeler and Lisette Borja — invented a way to capture kinetic energy produced from tools most of us use every day: our very own feet. 

Called MyStep, the concept embeds pressure-activated sensors inside bricks made of fungus filaments to harvest energy from footsteps. The team presented their project this past week at the Museum of Modern Art at the Biodesign Challenge Summit in New York City. 

“It was very exciting and quite an experience, and definitely a lot of work,” said Borja, who especially enjoyed her first visit to New York. “The summit sparked my personal interests in plant-based materials and sustainable fashion. And we as a team were able to expose ourselves to different topics that the other teams brought to the table.”

The MyStep “tiles” can be grown and shaped to fit any high foot-traffic areas, such as school campuses, music festivals and bustling city centers. By integrating electronics with organic materials, MyStep envisions a future where hybrid biotechnologies address the energy crisis through sustainable, community-driven interventions.

The team spent the last few months working on the concept, revising “until literally the night before we presented,” Wheeler said. There was a lot of discussion about the feasibility of their project, its usage in real-life batteries and how to power items, as well how to present it, said Alyssa Henning, an ASU graduate student in biological design who had accompanied the team to New York.

Many of the judges came from industries that were looking for more sustainable and biodegradable materials, and projects that had lower carbon footprints.

“We learned to tailor our presentations to scientists and potential business people, as well as artists,” Nacion said.

Even though their team didn’t place, Austill said he still was inspired by seeing all the other projects.

“There were a lot of really cool projects, and inspirational work and speakers. It was such a wonderful experience,” he said.

The winning entry for the Biodesign Challenge was from the University of British Columbia for the MYCOmmunity Toilet, which tackles the challenges of sanitation within refugee camps. 

In May, seven ASU teams presented their ideas before an audience at the Biodesign Institute. Concepts included smart clothing, compost pots and using waste-based materials for construction. 

Henning served as a mentor and judge, along with Shelley Haydel, a Biodesign scientist and professor in the School of Life Sciences, and Pam Winfrey, a scientific research curator at Biodesign.

Haydel explained why the judges picked the MyStep team to continue on in New York: “I’m a runner. I like thinking about technology I can engage with. There are so many different directions the project can expand into.”

The MyStep “tiles” can be grown and shaped to fit any high foot-traffic areas.

“Over the course of the spring 2018 semester, the students were enrolled in my Interactive Materials class, which focuses on thoughtfully and critically embedding computational media into the physical world,” said Kuznetsov, assistant professor at the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at ASU. “In the class, we tinkered and experimented with high-tech and low-tech materials. Students' final projects were themed around biolectronic interfaces.”

Teams showcased their projects at MoMA to an audience of 200-plus curators, artists, designers, scientists and more. They competed for prizes including the Glass Microbe, an artwork produced by U.K. artist Luke Jerram, and the Animal-Free Wool Prize sponsored by PETA, Stella McCartney and Stray Dog Capital.

“These finalists were selected from a pool of 450 participants. I firmly believe that they are leading us into a sustainable future with their visions,” said Daniel Grushkin, founder and director of the Biodesign Challenge.

This is the second year that ASU has participated in the Biodesign Challenge. The project is supported by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Biodesign Institute. 

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