Sparks

Smart bricks and bioreactors

 By Jim McClelland

‘Smart’ bricks which can recycle wastewater and generate electricity are being created as part of a new project aiming to introduce ‘bioreactor walls’ to transform places where we live and work. Each brick will contain a microbial fuel cell, filled with programmable synthetic microorganisms developed by experts at UWE Bristol. Robotically activated, each chamber will contain a variety of microorganisms specifically chosen to clean water, reclaim phosphate, generate electricity and create new detergents…

(Cover photo by www.inhabitat.com)

The traditional building block is about as commonplace as it is basic. A simple and inert construction staple, it pretty much falls into the category of ‘fix-and-forget.’ Frankly, it can be a bit boring. One cutting-edge ‘Living Architecture’ research project currently under way across Europe has come up with a revolutionary new modular concept that might just change the game.

Conceived with computing, rich with robotics, but literally based on bugs, it can extract resources from sunlight, water and air, and reclaim and create valuable chemical compounds. This really is not just another brick in the wall.

These ‘smart’ bricks—which can recycle wastewater and generate electricity—are being created as part of a new project aiming to introduce ‘bioreactor walls’ into housing, public buildings and offices. The living cells will be able to sense their surroundings and respond through a series of digitally coordinated mechanisms.

Every brick will contain a microbial fuel cell, filled with programmable synthetic microorganisms. Robotically activated, each chamber within will feature a variety of microorganisms specifically chosen to clean water, reclaim phosphate, generate electricity and create new detergents.

Biofilm that will be used in the smart bricks

The groundbreaking $3.6 million Living Architecture (LIAR) scheme brings together a team of many talents lead by Newcastle University and including academics at the universities of the West of England (UWE Bristol), and Trento, plus the Spanish National Research Council, and business partners at LIQUIFER Systems Group and EXPLORA.

Grant-funded via the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, LIAR is also consulting with circular-economy experts from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, as well as the European Space Agency, plus market-leaders in key disciplines such as building engineering and computing, including the likes of Arup and IBM.

“The best way to describe what we’re trying to create is a ‘biomechanical cow’s stomach,'” explains Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, UK, who is co-ordinating the project. “It contains different chambers, each processing organic waste for a different, but overall related, purpose—like a digestive system for your home or your office.”

Physical integration into the host building is such that the units almost resemble architectural organ implants, but the essential modularity of the system actually makes it highly flexible, plus ultimately customizable, she adds: “Think of the skeletons of buildings staying pretty much the same, but all the cavities being much better utilized. And flexibly so. Modularly built-in, the system creates better use of space, enables updating and repairs, but doesn’t require huge retrofits.”

SEE MORE: Invisible power hits the street by Jim McClelland

det

The technology is still young, but key to the business case is the natural relationship between resource flows in and out, concludes Professor Armstrong: “The beauty of these systems is they do not consume industrial-scale feeds. They are not industrial systems, they are physiological, homeostatic, adaptive and what they do is optimize resource use. They can only output what is going in.”

Being operationally balanced and proportionate in this way means the system is genuinely scalable. So, if there were to be industrial-scale waste generated in a building, there would also then be potential for industrial-scale outcomes. Equally, smaller-scale usage might see the power of greywater in an office, for example, harnessed to charge the fleet of electric company cars.

The proof of concept sought by the LIAR team concerns the degree to which these systems might ultimately be metabolically programmable—in other words, make useful substances. Looking ahead, we are invited to imagine a bathroom wall that could make high-value medical compounds, or even a recreational space that ‘brews’ alcohol.

Now, that is definitely not boring.

about the author
Jim McClelland
Editor + journalist for supplements to The Times + Sunday Times, also quoted in Guardian, Sunday Telegraph. I blog for such as GE + Gap. Active on social media. Specialisms include Sustainability.