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“We squeezed and squeezed and squeezed!” say Daniela Kostova, 36, and Olivia Robinson, 34, former grad students of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). They aren’t talking about making
OJ — they’re talking about extracting salt from sopping T-shirts.

Kostova and Robinson are the creators of Waste to Work, a project exploring sweat as a catalyst for energy. Commissioned by the Schenectady Museum, the project is inspired by the relationship between Schenectady’s General Electric factories (the company’s former headquarters) and their workers.

“We saw a connection between sweat used as electrolytes for batteries, and as a metaphor for labor,” says Robinson. They enrolled in a residency program at RPI’s Center for Biotechnology to learn more about electrochemical principles, tapping into a larger network of people working in BioArt, including faculty member Robert Linhardt, developer of a supercapacitor that runs on blood, sweat, and urine.

Waste to Work’s first phase ran at the museum in 2008 and was made of 250 galvanic cell batteries, each connected through artery-like wires to an illuminated LED map based on a NASA satellite photo of the Earth at night. They crafted the batteries from recycled containers, artist charcoal (carbon), nails (zinc), and sweat, which they gathered through random T-shirt exchanges at construction sites, saunas, and parades.

At the opening, audience members could activate the batteries — and light up sections of the map — using a turkey baster. “Two things became apparent,” says Kostova. “People were amazed at how [the world’s] electricity use is concentrated, and [they were] really grossed out by each other’s sweat.”

For the second phase, Robinson and biomed students at Syracuse University prototyped a wearable integration of the batteries that doubled as a sweat- harvester. Now she’s working on a sweat harvesting caravan. Waste to Work will be on exhibit — sans body odor — at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in New York City, this fall.

Kostova and Robinson: iamwhateveryouwantmetobe.com