How one of the Aerocene balloons looked in 2015

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Balloon powered by sunshine could help track biodiversity

Museum scientists are investigating the possibility of using a heat-powered balloon to sample London's air.

It is hoped that a new, sustainable device called Aerocene will help experts to protect biodiversity in urban areas by monitoring microscopic life forms. The balloon is powered only by the heat of the Sun and infrared radiation from the surface of Earth. It doesn't burn fossil fuels or use batteries.

This invention could unlock information about how life in London's air is changing.

An interdisciplinary team is researching how to sample and study the microbial biodiversity in the air on Exhibition Road, the Museum's home in South Kensington.

The study could include a range of cyanobacteria, algae, fungal and moss spores, lichens and plant pollen.

Dr Holger Thues, a lichen curator at the Museum, says, 'Our aim is to analyse the diversity of life in the air that surrounds visitors on Exhibition Road. We want to compare airborne organisms with those already established on the surface of buildings, pavements and trees.

'This, coupled with the other data gathered by the balloon, would tell us how influxes of new organisms, as well as changes in air quality, affect the established communities.'

'This is of interest because of the role these microorganisms play in moderating and monitoring air quality and their role in urban food chains.'

Sculpture becomes science

Aerocene began as an art project led by internationally acclaimed artist Tomás Saraceno.

A series of air-filled sculptures are able to float without using fossil fuels, solar panels, batteries or artificial gases.

The next stage of the project, Aerocene Explorer, is bringing together an international community of researchers, scientists, designers, artists and activists, to spark discussion about environmental issues.

The artist Tomás Saraceno

Artist Saraceno is hoping the sculptures can be put to use by scientists and designers © Tomás Saraceno


Saraceno says, 'Inflated by air, lifted by the Sun, carried by the wind - the Aerocene project questions and seeks answers to pollution and our current dependency on fossil and hydrocarbon fuels.'

Experts have been invited to develop new ways of using the device for sustainable travel, living and research.

Public event and future flights

The Exhibition Road Cultural Group, which the Museum is part of, has announced Aerocene as its first public commission.

The group brings together artists, scientists, researchers and creative thinkers around Exhibition Road to develop new site-specific installations and interdisciplinary events.

In addition to the Natural History Museum, partners include the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial College London, Kensington Palace, the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music.

The latest project, Aerocene Campus, will be launched at the Royal College of Art on 26 November. This event is a call for scientists and designers to examine how the Aerocene Explorer balloon can be used in the future.  

Chris Cotton, Chair of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, says, 'The concept of working together as a multidisciplinary group to develop ideas on a large scale reflects the historic role of these institutions as pioneers of innovation and learning in science and the arts.

'We are delighted that Tomás Saraceno has accepted our first Exhibition Road Commission.'

Our science

Holger Thues and his colleagues Dr Anne Jungblut, a microbial and botanical diversity researcher, and Dr Tom Hill, a micropalaeontologist, have proposed using the Aerocene Explorer to monitor the movement of microbes, lichens, spores and pollens.

The work would complement Dr Jungblut's research on the diversity of microscopic life in urban environments, carried out using microbial DNA samples collected by citizen scientists for the Microverse project.

Dr Hill would like to study the variety of airborne pollen and spores in the air, to see how they reflect the trees and plants in the area.

Most buildings and trees along Exhibition Road already host microbial and lichen communities that are constantly changing as a consequence of changes in air pollution and the microclimate.

The team would like to investigate how quickly these communities respond to changes in air quality and new spores in the environment.

Currently the Aerocene Explorer carries a camera and sensors for collecting barometric pressure, humidity and temperature data. New sensing tools, traps and devices would need to be integrated into the balloon to collect data about microscopic organisms.

Dr Thues says, 'The Aerocene Explorer would let us sample the air above Exhibition Road at different locations and heights, with devices as simple as sticky tape and glass plates. These samples could be compared with data from buildings, lamp-posts, green spaces and soils in the area.

'For this combined approach we will need the financial resources to identify the samples back in the Museum, so we are also seeking funding.'