LIAR biofilm in action

Our cities are expanding. In 2014 more than half of the world’s population was found in cities, a figure that is expected to jump to 70% by 2050.  In Greater London alone, today’s population is estimated at around 8.7million people, all living and working in little over 1,500 square kilometres.

As people continue to flock to cities in search of fame and fortune, swelling the streets with cars and stretching housing blocks to their limits, the cities themselves begin to show the strain.  In central London, traffic crawls along at the same speed as the horse-drawn carts that drove the same roads a century before. And remarkably, earlier this year the capital breached its own annual legal limit for air pollution within just 7 days of 2016.  As finite energy resources dip around the world, experts predict that water- or rather the lack of it- will become the single biggest urban challenge of the 21st century.

Professor Armstrong of Newcastle University however, along with a team of top engineers, researchers and architects, may have found a radical solution to the problems encountered by cities around the world.

Newcastle University are co-ordinating the €3.2m Living Architecture project.  The initiative is bringing together the collective brain-power of experts from around the world, developing ‘smart’ bricks that can extract essential resources from sunlight, waste water and air.  The team is a collaboration between the University of West England (UWE Bristol), University of Trento, the Spanish National Research Council, LIQUIFER Systems Group and EXPLORA.

Each specially adapted building block will contain a microbial fuel cell or MFC.  These tiny fuel cells produce an electrical current by harnessing the power of bacteria, and a colony of fully-programmable synthetic microorganisms.  Each of these ‘microorganisms’, developed by experts at UWE Bristol, is robotically activated and has a specific function.  The microorganisms’ jobs include cleaning waste water, reclaiming phosphate – an increasingly rare mineral – from polluted air, and generating electricity.

The biomechanical cow’s stomach

“The best way to describe what we’re trying to create is a ‘biomechanical cow’s stomach’,” said Rachel Armstrong. A professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, Rachel is co-ordinating the project. “It contains different chambers, each processing organic waste for a different, but overall 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,” she added.

The bricks can fit together perfectly creating huge ‘bioreactor walls’.  Our future cities could see them installed into houses, public buildings and office spaces, turning buildings into biological computers.  The living walls would be able to sense and adapt to their surroundings using a series of digitally coordinated mechanisms.

The team also hope that their work will allow them to reclaim the increasingly scarce mineral phosphate from waste water.  Professor Armstrong said: “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.”