A microorganism-fueled facade also fuels a debate about energy efficiency.
Photo by NordNordWest/Wikimedia Commons
Last spring, Arup, the design and engineering firm that brought the world the Centre Pompidou and the Sydney Opera House, unveiled their latest hypermodern architectural creation in Hamburg. From the outside, the surface of the 15-unit apartment building just looks like a bubbling green lava lamp stretched over an entire building. But those moving bubbles serve a function: they help to feed and order the living algae embedded within the Bio Intelligent Quotient (BIQ) building’s exterior skin. In turn, the 8-foot by 2-foot glass panels of green scuzz—the building’s $6.58 million bioreactor façade—power the entire structure, making it the world’s first algae-powered and theoretically fully self-sufficient building ever.
Conceived in 2009 as part of Hamburg’s International Building Exhibition, Arup’s BIQ building is part of a European movement to design carbon neutral, self-sustaining, and renewably powered structures. (Germany, for example, is pushing to achieve 35 percent national energy reliance on renewables by 2020.) Alongside a series of houses demonstrating solid timber carbon-locking constructions and greywater recycling systems, the BIQ was funded in large part by the German government as a means to incentivize the development of new adaptive, smart construction materials. Of all the technologies on display, though, algae power has perhaps the finest pedigree and greatest potential.
Research on the energy potential of algae, once just considered a slimy pond nuisance, began in earnest during the gas crisis of the 1970s at America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Producing about five times as much biomass per square foot as soil grown plants, and thriving on carbon dioxide, algae have the potential to grow almost limitlessly and produce oily lipids and gases that can be transformed into relatively clean energy. But official research largely ended in the 1990s as scientists concluded that the benefits of feeding, fostering, and harvesting algae were not yet competitive with then-low oil prices. Still, many independent research groups kept the dream of algae power alive over the next couple of decades, slowly improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of proposed systems. From 2009 onwards, at least a few plans for algae bioreactors have floated around the design community and academic circles, although few very have become reality.
Photo courtesy of IBA Hamburg
The BIQ is the first residential structure to fully realize the dreams of algae power advocates. The building is coated on its two sun-facing sides with glass-plated tanks of suspended algae. Pressurized air is pumped into the system, feeding the organisms carbon dioxide and nutrients while moving them about—creating the lava lamp effect—to keep them from settling on the glass and rotting. Scrubbers clean off any sticking biomass, freeing up more sunlight for the remaining algae to perform photosynthesis. Periodically, algae are culled, mashed into biofuel, and burned in a local generator to produce power. Excess can be sold off for food supplements, methane generation to external power providers, or stored for future use. The result is a building shaded from summer heat by algae foliage, insulated from street noise, and potentially self-generating the power to sustain its own harvesters, heat, and electricity.
Critics of the design and of algae power in general argue that transforming algae into biofuel requires energy, as does manufacturing and pumping in nutrients. They also take issue with the fact that the BIQ is not totally self-sufficient and that algae technology is more expensive than solar power. They claim that these points make the technology more of a novelty than a useful solution—or at least that its potential has been over hyped.
Even Arup will concede to most of these points, admitting that the BIQ has only achieved 50 percent energy independence thus far. However they believe that total independence is within reach, especially by integrating solar into the design. The costs—$2,500 per square meter for the bioreactor system alone—are astronomical, but the developers hope that as the technology evolves, prices will decrease, while the savings of fuel reduction will offset the remaining extra costs. They hope that soon high-energy consuming businesses like data centers will help pilot their tech in the search for grid independence, and that algae power can take off in residential homes within a decade.
The Arup team is made up of futurists. The same year that they unveiled the BIQ, they released the “It’s Alive” report, envisioning a 2050 with mega-skyscraper vertical farms, jet-powered maintenance robots, and photovoltaic paint, a classic wish list of quasi sci-fi tech. So it’s probably reasonable to question how realistic their optimism about algae power is. But they’re no longer the lone nuts on the road to mass algae power. Grow Energy of San Diego, founded in 2012, has produced two home algae bioreactors and hopes to be able to manufacture, deliver, and install its first systems—generating 35 percent of the average home’s energy with minimal maintenance—for $12,000 per system starting next year.
Meanwhile, in late 2013, scientists developed a very simple technique—basically a specialized pressure cooker—to turn algae into cheap, competitive, biodegradable, non-toxic, and relatively clean oil in just an hour, and believe they can mainstream the technology within 25 years. And just this year, the state of Alabama launched the world’s first algae-powered wastewater treatment plant in the town of Daphne, cleaning water, generating fuel, and serving as proof of concept that the technology is improving, gaining widespread support, and proving itself on larger and larger scales.
Although all of this means we’re likely to see a greater number of more efficient buildings like the BIQ in the next few years, we’re still many years off from an algae generator in every home. But given last month’s pledge by the International Union of Architects to end carbon emissions from buildings by 2050, and similar global initiatives in search of carbon-neutral, self-sufficient structures, the emerging tech is likely to find more champions.
It’s hard not to look at the BIQ, in spite of all its flaws, and see a system that fits the order of the day in every way: a carbon locking, self-sustaining, off the grid, neutral power system. If the only hitch is that, in early stages of development, it’s still a bit pricey and buggy, that’s hardly a death knell for an otherwise optimistic and inspiring tech.