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Could Algae Be the Future of Renewable Energy?

A new design exhibit showcases the illuminating power of everyone’s favorite eukaryotic organism as biofuel.

Living Things at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art showcases the use of algae for fuel.

As the scourge of ponds and swimming holes everywhere, algae frequently get a bad rep. These little green pests, however, play a very vital role in our ecosystem—and potentially the future of renewable energy. Photosynthetic algae are able to “eat” excess CO2 in the atmosphere and produce energy, which has led scientists to question whether they might be a potential (and plentiful) source of biofuel. Recently two Carnegie Mellon graduates, Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier, created an exhibit called Living Things, which showcases how “algae energy” could someday provide a greener way to power homes. The exhibit, taking place through spring 2016 at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art, is one part furniture design showcase, one part futuristic lab experiment. As part of the project, algae is sent through more than half-a-mile of intricate piping to feed into glass vessels, shaped like lamps and other home ephemera, filled with alkaline water.

These “high functioning photo bioreactors” are then able to generate heat and light as part of a self-sustaining system that also filters the air, and provides nutrient and waste control to the algae, allowing them to thrive and multiply. Like an Ikea showroom gone rogue, the exhibit contains a dining room, living room, and “concealed control center”—all powered by algae.

The best part of the living room is the glowing, orb like vessels affixed to ceiling fixtures and tabletops.

At the control center, 3D-printed knobs enable the algae to be harvested.

“It keeps the biomass from coating the interior surfaces of the vessels and also provides each little photosynthetic organism varying access to light, which simulates the natural environment of a lake or ocean where currents or waves move algae closer or further away from the surface and therefore sunlight,” Douenias explained to PSFK, in reference to the piping system.

Prior to his work with Living Things, Douenias worked on a startup that hoped to implement food waste energy and nutrient recovery systems. This helped fuel his curiosity in algae, particularly spirulina, which will be served at various exhibition events throughout the run.

Living Things is currently on view at the Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania through March 27, 2016.

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