Glastonbury Festival 2017. Image credit: Luke Taylor
As a company spanning engineering and the arts, both the very nature of energy and its functional application have always been central to what we do. From dramatic show moments that trigger a simultaneous upsurge of emotion amongst thousands of people, to 60-foot flames erupting with a thunderous shockwave – the harnessing and visualization of energy in its most visceral forms are the essence of the experiences we create.
An ethos of sustainability
It has always been a challenge to reconcile giant bursts of propane gas flame with the ethos of recycling and resourcefulness that underpins Arcadia. Our giant mechanical spider is a symbol of that ethos, exploring the relationship between technology and human intent by repurposing military hardware into a celebratory environment, and our Metamorphosis show is rooted in ideas of transformation. However, we felt that the broader transformation symbolism – intrinsic to any act of energy conversion – wasn’t quite enough. As such, we began to experiment with recycled energy sources.
As part of our work with European Green Capital in 2015, we developed the world’s first recycled biofuel pyrotechnic system. Being artists as well as engineers, it was vital for us to help nudge audiences into looking at things differently, and the key to long-term change was exciting people about the possibilities of new technology and new ways of doing things. Being able to create a huge pyrotechnic show, powered not just by biofuel but by recycled biofuel, was central to making that point. Witnessing raw energy bursting overhead that taps into our most primal human instincts – but all run on used vegetable oil from local fish and chip shops.
Symbolically, it was a huge success – recycled energy as a sensory experience rather than an abstract concept – not least in a society where the searing power of energy is veiled behind quiet whirring and soft LED blinking. It invited people to look at waste in a creative light – shifting perceptions away from what waste used to be and toward what waste has the potential to become.
The technical challenges were manifold. Conversion to biodiesel was complex and required a careful balance of chemicals to make it viable for reliable ignition and stability. The prototype system ran on liquid rather than gas, and while we could make the system work in the UK, we soon realized that the mix of chemicals and treatment required was going to be virtually impossible to achieve abroad while touring. And, while the liquid flame system was a great addition, it still didn’t pack quite the same punch as a compressed gas system, so we began looking into biomethane options.
In practice, using biomethane also created various problems. It is intensely corrosive and far from stable – freezing in pipes. It is also difficult to transport and belches a black smoke that actually looks worse for the environment than propane. Again, with so much hinging on what people experience with their own senses, seeing a cloud of black smoke was never going to do long-term wonders in convincing them that recycling was the way to go.
Today, we are working with new partners to develop a clean biomethane system that chemically purifies the fuel and leaves it in a consistent, stable, clean, and easily transportable form. Thankfully, it is also compressible, which is great news for us as compressed pyrotechnic fuel will always cause a bigger, more dramatic bang. The project is deep in development and we are hoping to launch the converted systems in 2019 if all goes well.
Where we’re heading
Once we convert the flame systems to a renewable energy source, we will then have one symbol of resourceful energy transformation facing off against another – the Tesla coil. Tesla technology and lightning–bolt firing performers are central elements of our shows, and while we are looking at fully renewable power sources for the coils to plug into, Tesla coils by their very nature represent the generation of maximum output from minimum input. Using the coil to amplify hundreds of volts into millions of volts demonstrates how engineering ingenuity can amplify finite resources into spectacular, high-power outcomes.
Powering events tens of thousands strong entirely on renewable energy is, of course, the dream, but it is a dream which we are all still working towards. Over the next few years, we will be experimenting with the latest lithium-ion battery technologies – run on wind or solar energy – to power parts of our events, before we finally move to power entire events.
Ultimately, the beauty of engineering, and indeed the arts, is as much about the process as the results. We live in a society that all so often sees the result without fully understanding the excitement and uncertainty of the journey. By taking audiences with us through striving layers of imperfection – all the while refining and adding new ideas until finally reaching the goal of fully sustainable, fully renewable energy – the more people understand and appreciate what engineering can be. End products are, after all, consumerism. It is the adventure that gets us there that the human spirit is built on.