Untapped Power: Using Electric Eels to Power Digital Art!

Electric Eel Christmas Tree

Image source: Go.standard.net

Move over, reindeer! Mother nature has a new candidate for representing Christmas cheer: electric eels! These snake-like fish may not be as adorable as reindeer, but much like Rudolph they can also create glowing lights. Clever aquascapers are using these electrically-charged fish to explore new and creative aquascaping concepts.

Meet the aptly-named Sparky, an electric eel in the Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy, Utah. That festive Christmas tree next to his tank is powered by Sparky’s electricity. Well, saying that the lights are “powered” by Sparky is not quite accurate. The tree lights are plugged into a wall socket undoubtedly, but the fish’s electrical current does power the light sequencers. They flash on and off based on Sparky’s movements and his electrical currents.

So, how does the whole setup work? First, we need to take a look at the bizarre characteristics of electric eels. These predators (which are actually not eels, but rather fish that look like eels) have notoriously bad eyesight. They compensate for their relative blindness by collecting electrical energy as they swim and then discharge the electricity in a sudden blast to stun prey. They pack quite a punch at 500 volts, enough to stun an adult human. Here’s a clip of an electric eel zapping a caiman crocodile.

The folks over at the living planet aquarium tapped into this electrical power by installing two stainless-steel electrodes in the tank. The electrodes power the sequencers to create a twinkling light effect on the Christmas tree. Terry Smith, the project manager at the nearby Cache Valley Electric, explained, “The sequencer takes the voltage the eel produces and operates circuitry that flashes the lights, fast or slow, based on the level of voltage he puts out.”

And here’s the great thing: you could install a similar system in your own home. You would need to get a few specialty pieces of equipment (and an electric eel, naturally), but you could have a fish-powered Christmas tree in time for the holidays! Theoretically you could use your electric eel to power other devices — just don’t expect to get a lot of juice from your fishy companion. Electric eels may store more than five time as much power as a typical wall socket, but they can’t produce a sustained electrical current. You could use your electric eel to power your coffee maker for maybe half a second before it ran out of steam. Low-power sequencers are perfect for tapping into this natural resource.

A setup like this opens up an endless world of possibility that would allow you to explore the intersection of manmade art and the organic world. For example, many modern aquarium light fixtures use LEDs that can span the full spectrum of colors. Imagine having an LED aquarium that gave off a cool blue light when your electric eel was placid, and then switch to a vibrant red when your fish emitted higher levels of electricity. You could also incorporate an LED art exhibit, similar to the Water Art Graffiti installation. Not only would your electric eel complete a beautiful aquascape, but it could literally create one-of-a-kind art every day by converting its electricity into digital-powered art. In fact, with a bit of coding, you could even give your electric eel a Twitter account so it could share with the world how charged it is. You’d have the world’s first tweeting fish!


4 thoughts on “Untapped Power: Using Electric Eels to Power Digital Art!

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