Living Algae Buildings: Coming Soon to Australia

June 7, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Photo credit: Press release

Bubbling green wall panels decarbonize the atmosphere.

A collaborative effort by scientists, sustainable building design experts, and architects may soon develop the first living algae buildings in Australia. The team is expecting to come out with their first flat façade algae panel this year.

The panel will contain microalgae — tiny aquatic plants that capture carbon dioxide from the air and light from the sun to generate energy and oxygen.

"Our goal is to successfully integrate algae into the built environment and use it to heat buildings, fertilise rooftop gardens and filter vehicle exhaust fumes," said Sara Wilkinson, an Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), in a press release.

One building powered by algae has already been designed and built in 2013 in Hamburg, Germany, as part of an exhibition. "There is demonstrated success of living algae bioreactors overseas, but nothing of such scale has been explored in Australia, until now," she said.

Wilkinson recently conducted a feasibility study, in which she interviewed more than 20 stakeholders in the building industry, including designers, engineers, developers, planners, architects, sustainability managers and certifiers, to find out what they view as the drivers and barriers to an algae building.

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Thus far, the response from stakeholders had been enthusiastic. However, the study has also uncovered some challenges. For instance, the researchers would need to figure out how to mitigate the issue of excessive heat killing the algae. The team had addressed this by speaking with the Australian Window Association, who advised on tempered and heat-resistant glass.

Such questions and concerns will help usher the team into the next stage of their research — the design of a prototype flat façade panel.

The panel will look like a giant green lava lamp with bubbling liquid twisting and turning below a layer of glass. "One of the biggest advantages of this technology is that it is so visually appealing,” says Wilkinson.

"I mean, how could you walk past a building with bubbling green wall panels and not stop to learn more about it? It's eye-catching, it's unique and it's decarbonising the atmosphere, all at the same time."

Peter Ralph, the Executive Director of the UTS Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster, leads a team that will work on algae strain optimization and selection to recommend the best species for the living building project.

"I want the public to accept the use of algae in everyday life,” said Ralph. “I want people to see more of this microorganism for what it is — a natural solution to the energy, food, economic and climate challenges facing our world today."

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