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Algae in the Walls Down Under

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

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There are green buildings, and then there are slimy green buildings: A team of researchers and architects in Australia are hoping that soon, buildings constructed with algae will be a reality in Sydney, generating energy and oxygen.

The use of algae as part of the built environment has been gaining momentum in recent years; in 2013, Hamburg, Germany’s B.I.Q. building opened, with panels containing algae covering the exterior.

With a new feasibility study now published, the hope of a team based out of the University of Technology Sydney is that soon, the material will be in use in buildings around Australia.

Algae up close
University of Technology Sydney

Algae use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, and sunlight to energy.

The group is led up by Sara Wilkinson, a professor at UTS’s School of the Built Environment, and Peter Ralph, a professor in the university’s Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster.

The two professors worked with UTS’s Research Engagement Manager, Dr. Brenton Hamdorf, and Paul Stoller, of architectural firm Atelier Ten, to bring their algae panel idea out of the lab and into the city.

Algae as Renewable Resource

There are a number of reasons algae in the walls might be useful.

Algae (many of them, at least) use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, and sunlight to energy. Those are two processes that are important to sustainable development; Germany’s B.I.Q. building converts the algae growing in its walls into biofuel, to then create electricity.

Algae panels essentially involve algae growing in water between panes of glass, which are referred to as “bioreactors.” The algae grow there and can be harvested when needed, and converted to biofuel or any number of other resources.

The Study

Ralph’s part in the research involves figuring out the algae end.

“Algae can be used to make almost anything that society needs—plastic, food, pharmaceuticals, paints, carpet and cosmetics, for starters,” he says. “We think there could be up to 300,000 species of algae out there, and that we are only culturing about 100 of those.”

Wilkinson and Ralph
Shane Lo / UTS

The group is led up by Sara Wilkinson, a professor at UTS’s School of the Built Environment, and Peter Ralph, a professor in the university’s Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster.

Wilkinson concentrates on the architectural elements—and challenges.

“For example, one of the recurring questions we were asked throughout the study was, ‘What would happen if a panel was accidentally or intentionally damaged?’” she explains. “So what we’ve recommended is specifying toughened glazing in certain areas.”

In the feasibility study (supported by a grant from the City of Sydney), the team says it learned about some of the unique Australian challenges it faces, and compares the algae bioreactor system to any other renewable energy project in terms of upfront cost and eventual savings and sustainability.

Making It a Reality

The researchers’ next step: Create a prototype panel for Australia, so they can begin to entertain the idea of producing the materials on a larger scale.

To Ralph, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

“I want the public to accept the use of algae in everyday life,” he says. “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.”


Tagged categories: Bio-based materials; Colleges and Universities; Green building; Research; Sustainability

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