09 September 2016

A new project to transform building facades into ‘biological computers’ made up of ‘digestive’ bricks that can create useful products from waste has been launched at Newcastle University.

The blocks are being developed as part of the Living Architecture (LIAR) project being coordinated by Newcastle University and will be able to extract resources from sunlight, waste water and air. Pieced together they will serve as bioreactor walls that can be easily incorporated in housing, public buildings and office spaces.

The £2.7m EU-funded scheme also includes experts from the University of the West of England (UWE) , the University of Trento (Italy)  and the Spanish National Research Council . Austrian research firm LIQUIFER Systems Group and Italy’s EXPLORA Biotech are also on board.

At the heart of the new blocks is a microbial fuel cell filled with programmable synthetic microorganisms. Robotically activated each chamber will contain microorganisms chosen to clean water, reclaim phosphate, generate electricity and create new detergents. The living cells will be able to sense and react to their surroundings through a series of digitally coordinated mechanisms.

Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, explains: "The best way to describe what we’re trying to create is a 'biomechanical cow's stomach. It contains different chambers, each processing organic waste for a different, but overall has related purpose – like a digestive system for your home or your office."

The LIAR project is incredibly exciting – it brings together living architecture, computing and engineering to find a new way to tackle global issues, like sustainability.

Professor Rachel Armstrong, Newcastle University

The project now underway will see the development of blocks through which waste water can permeate allowing microbial fuel cells to go to work. It is anticipated that the first prototype will be exhibited later this year.

The researchers also aim to find ways to reclaim phosphate – a mineral which is becoming increasingly scarce – and create new detergents using the blocks.

Professor Armstrong explains: “While this project deals with very small amounts of the substance, the insights we will be able to gather into how communities may collectively harvest reusable substances from their wastewater could potentially create an economy through re-distributing resources through councils, or other interested parties such as washing machine manufacturers.”

In recent years there has been significant interest in bio-reactive facades. Arup’s BIQ house prototype in Hambug used sunlight to grow ‘microalgae’ which was used to provide solar shading and generate energy but the LIAR scheme takes the concept of a ‘digestive’ façade one step further. It aims to develop a series of biofilms (pictured above), made up of organisms that live and work together, that  can be tailored to provide different bacterial reactions, giving rise to predictable, programmable levels of say, nitrogen, phosphates or oxygen. In effect, the technology should deliver ‘programmable’ architecture with a multitude of innovative applications.


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