In a secure laboratory in the southwest of England, a living wall stands before me, luminous and throbbing. I’m wearing a protective blue lab coat that’s too short on my wrists, trying to trace the paths between light-filled chambers and capsules of bright green liquid. This looming system of pumps, vats, and plastic tubes, running between 15 white boxes of wild microbes and genetically modified algae and reaching up to the ceiling in a stack of silver scaffolding, dominates the room.
While it might sound like I’m on the set of a sci-fi film, all bubbling liquids and quivering tubes, this is actually a prototype for a new kind of architecture, one that generates energy by decomposing living matter — human urine, to be exact.
“The driving engine of the wall is the microbial fuel cell,” explains Yannis Ieropoulos, a professor of bioenergy and self-sustainable systems at the University of the West of England. He traces the path from tanks of liquid into one of the brick-shaped boxes. “Microbes will break down the organic fraction of the household waste that flows through.”
Inside each fuel cell is a bright green soup of algae that produces oxygen in order to facilitate a process whereby the chemical energy of metabolizing microbes, fed on urine, is converted into electrical energy. In the same cells, genetically modified algae is used to help recover specific elements, such as phosphorus, which can be extracted, collected, and used for other purposes such as manufacturing.
Should we think of our homes like gardens that need tending?
Outside the secure room, lab coat off, I’m shown an earlier iteration of a brick that’s full of dead…