What If Our Phones Had Skin?

VISION: Sheathe cell phones in a living, electricity-generating skin made by bacteria, changing how we relate to them and how they are charged.

Team: Nada Elkharashi, Sequoia Fischer, Catherine Euale, Paige Perillat-Piratoine

Affiliation: Electric Eels, Design Collective

Our phones are often the first thing we wake to. They hold our most personal information, yet we treat them as disposable shells, trading them in for the latest models while older devices languish in landfills.

A collective of designers and synthetic biologists from four different countries decided to reimagine our devices through a lens of care and sustainability. What if smartphones had living “skins” that would allow them to charge themselves—from the air? The team sought to transform the smooth slab of metal or plastic into a device that looks and behaves more like an organism. 

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have demonstrated that a protein created by the bacteria Geobacter sulfurreducens can generate an electric charge from humidity in air. When linked into a mesh, the protein forms nanowires that can produce 0.5 volts across a 7-micrometer-thick film. Using this research, the team calculated that they’d need two square meters of film to power a single phone. However, by mimicking the folding structure of villi in the human small intestine, they designed a way to fit this surface area into the dimensions of a phone case. With this new skin, they speculate, the phone will be able to power itself while simultaneously feeling more organic.

In their video, the team described the project: “The self-charging skin ushers a new materiality for our devices. Now our phones are textured, layered, deep, soft, touchable. By holding it in this skin, we shift our relationship to our electronics in the end. It’s there to care for. Now, our perception toward our devices moves from disposable to companion species.”

Images by Nada Elkharashi.

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Cite this Article

Challenge, Biodesign. “What If Our Phones Had Skin?” Issues in Science and Technology (March 11, 2022).