A multi-disciplinary team bringing together science, sustainable building design and architecture may soon develop the first living algae buildings in Australia.
Imagine using gloopy green algae growing inside triple-paned windows to heat a building and supply its hot water needs. This futuristic-sounding idea is, in fact, a reality in the world’s first algae-powered building in Germany where the facade of a four-storey unit block bubbles away like a huge lava lamp.
The technology works when the sun hits the panes and heats up the algae in a liquid solution, causing photosynthesis and generating heat. This heat is captured and processed by a bioreactor within the building to provide hydronic heat for radiators, underfloor heating and hot water. The algae can also be harvested for use in biofuel or pharmaceutical production as protein supplements.
Fascinated by this new technology, Associate Professor Sara Wilkinson of the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building has recently undertaken a feasibility study, funded by a City of Sydney environmental research grant, to look at algae building technology.
She is now collaborating with Professor Peter Ralph from the Climate Change Cluster (C3) to build a prototype tailored for the Australian environment.
The researchers are working with Research Engagement Manager Dr Brenton Hamdorf and Director of the Australian arm of architectural firm Atelier Ten, Paul Stoller, to make their vision a reality.
“I am really excited to be working on this multidisciplinary trans-faculty project, getting out of my silo of expertise to learn new ideas,” says Wilkinson.
“From the discussions we’ve had with building engineers, facade, mechanical and structural engineers, architects, designers, planners and regulators it seems we have enough positives to build a prototype on the UTS campus.”
The team will also conduct experiments to measure the peaks and troughs of energy output over the seasons and assess a variety of possible types of algae and thicknesses of glass that could be used in the facade.
Ralph describes his role as ensuring that Wilkinson puts “the right green stuff on the buildings”. Along with his team from the Centre for Industrialised Algae, he will be studying algae strain optimisation and selection to recommend the best species for the project.
Wilkson says, “Peter (Ralph) tells me that we have a choice of many different colours of algae including green, red and purple — as well as strains that may be hardier or more heat resistant than others. So we have a lot of exciting variables to work with.
“The Hamburg building is in a cool climate. We will have to make adaptions in Sydney where we have more hours of sun and more intense sunshine. It also could be different if we have an algae-powered building in Tasmania or Victoria, so we will take all those variables into consideration.”
Wilkinson predicts it won’t be long before Australia sees a building that incorporates the technology.
“The City of Sydney is very supportive of our ideas, wanting to make Sydney the most desirable and most innovative city in Australia. Possibly within about three years we will have something we can take to industry.
“In a space like this you have to be bold and brave to take the first step.”
Photographer: Shane Lo
Artist’s impression: Paul Stoller, Atelier Ten Environmental Design Consultants