Secretive Victorian Artists Made These Intricate Patterns Out of Algae

Sep 19, 2014

By Megan Gambino

Since seeing his first diatom arrangement—an intricate pattern of algae crafted by German microscopist J.D. Möller—Matthew Killip has been enthralled with the Victorian art form. “I love seeing the hand of man display the work of nature so beautifully,” he says.

Almost immediately, the British filmmaker had two questions. First, how did these 19th-century artists manage to assemble diatoms, each just microns long, into dazzling shapes invisible to the naked eye? And secondly, is anyone still working in this medium?

Killip’s search for answers led him to Klaus Kemp, the only living practicioner. He spent an afternoon with the eccentric Englishman, cameras rolling, and produced the documentary, seen above, called “The Diatomist.” The short film was released this week.

I interviewed Killip by email to find out more about this lost art:

What exactly is a diatom?

Diatoms are microscopic single-cell algae housed in beautiful glass shells. There are hundreds of thousands of varieties of diatoms all with unique forms.

Read more here.

One comment on “Secretive Victorian Artists Made These Intricate Patterns Out of Algae”

  • @OP link – I find the best arrangements overwhelming. The variety and intricacy of shapes, patterns and repetitions evoke a profound sense of awe. I can’t help but recall Darwin: “Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    Evolved systems can also be more efficient than designed engineered ones!

    Long before humankind invented silicon-based solar cells, nature had already found a way to use silica to harness the power of the sun — in the form of algae. Researchers are now using diatoms and other single-celled algae as templates for developing tomorrow’s solar cells.

    . . . . . .

    By trapping light inside the nanoscale pores of thin-film solar cells coated with diatoms, the engineers claim that more incident photons are captured to boost electricity generation, thereby greatly increasing efficiency.

    “In our system, photons bounce around inside pores formed from diatom shells,” said OSU professor Greg Rorrer, “making them three times more efficient.

    . . . .

    In 2009 the world got excited for a minute when diatoms became the next go-to production source in clean energy. At the time a few researchers had figured out how to engineer the little critters to produce something other than silica that they could then use to conduct electricity. The diatoms with a little boost became bioreactors, making oil that could be used in industrial processes, including making biodiesel.
    And an Oregon State University researcher discovered that the silcon shells from dead diatoms actually boosted solar cell panel efficiency by creating a scaffold that made absorbed light dance around. By momentarily capturing light and generating a little heat the diatom-enhanced solar panels could become about three times as efficient. This was a crucial breakthrough in solar materials science because conventional solar efficiency had hit a wall.

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