Technology

Newcastle University leads project to create ‘smart' bricks

1 September 2016 | By Stephen Cousins

The University of Newcastle is leading a €2.9m project to transform building facades into biological computers, made up of “digestive” bricks that can create useful products from waste.

The three-year Living Architecture (LIAR) project aims to develop a series of microbial fuel cells, filled with programmable micro-organisms able to clean water, reclaim phosphates, generate electricity and create new detergents as a by-product of microbial metabolism. The cells could be installed in homes and offices within 10 years, say researchers, helping tackle global issues related to energy scarcity and mounting waste.

The EU-funded project is being coordinated by the University of Newcastle’s Department of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, working in collaboration with the University of the West of England, Bristol, the Spanish National Research Council, the University of Trento in Italy, and two SMEs: Austrian research firm Liquifer Systems Group, and Italy’s Explora Biotech.

The concept of a bio-reactive facade was previously explored by Arup in its BIQ prototype house in Hamburg, where algae biomass is grown in panels exposed to sunlight. As the biomass grows, it increases levels of solar shading, and once harvested can be anaerobically digested, or burnt, to produce energy.

LIAR aims to take things a technological step into the future by selectively programming the biology to enable a much greater level of precision and control over the outputs.

Rachel Armstrong, former TED fellow and professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University, comments: “Programmable micro-organisms, similar to tiny computers, can be controlled to produce more than one molecule, or a selection of molecules, at the same time. This is not an agricultural system where one product is produced that needs to be processed into useful components. It is taking a step towards programming the agriculture itself, processing organic waste into valuable compounds and producing electricity, like a factory.”

The project will build a section of wall using ceramic-based blocks, or bricks, through which waste water can permeate, allowing the microbial fuel cells to go to work.

The first prototype brick, using natural biology, rather than programmed biology, to produce electricity in a microbial fuel cell, will be exhibited in Venice in October.

Most of the technology required to produce a digestive facade, including microbial fuel cells, is already available, says Armstrong. The technological ‘leap’ for researchers is to create a metabolic “app”, able to design specific programmable biofilms made up of organisms that live and work together.

Armstrong comments: “If we understand the genetics of each species of microorganism, we can use them together to produce different bacterial reactions, and so produce specific levels of nitrogen, of phosphates, or oxygen etc. We need to create a biofilm layer that produces a substance that different organisms that don’t normally work together like.”

It is hoped that insights from the project will show how communities can harvest reusable substances from their waste water and potentially create a new economy by re-distributing resources via councils, or other third parties.

The project may sound outlandish, but the potentially benefits for society are huge, says Armstrong: “There are large numbers of experts doing synthetic biology who are struggling to find applications with social, environmental and urban value, think of the amount of money spent to reclaim oestrogens water supplies to save fish populations.

“A unit like ours could be programmed to extract oestrogens from water before they ever reach the sewerage system, it could reclaim phosphates at source, or incorporate systems to identify pathogens.”

This is not an agricultural system where one product is produced that needs to be processed into useful components. It is taking a step towards programming the agriculture itself, processing organic waste into valuable compounds and producing electricity, like a factory.– Rachel Armstrong, Newcastle University