The Home of the Future Could Be Powered by Microbes

An ecological vision of architecture promises to provide electricity by integrating living systems into the walls of our homes

an online article written by Thomas McMullan,

… “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 flies. It works on the same principle: Organic matter is broken down by anaerobically respiring microorganisms, creating energy in the process. Put all these bricks together and connect it to your plumbing, and you have a wall that can take whatever you flush down the toilet, clean the water, and power your TV, all at the same time.

At least, that’s the ambition. Together, the 15 bricks in the living wall are able to produce only around 60 milliwatts — just enough to power the wall’s control system and a small mechanism that opens and shuts a window. This is a proof of concept, the result of a three-year project between the University of the West of England, the University of Newcastle, the Spanish National Research Council, the University of Trento, and a number of other European partners. The aim is to show how our homes could be transformed to produce renewable energy and fresh water while extracting valuable resources from the waste we flush away.

“We’re trying to find the right tools and technologies to implement a vision of living architecture—an architecture that can incorporate the processes of life,” says Rachel Armstrong, a professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University. “Not just the forms, not just a metaphorical or rhetorical gesture, but actually embody the processes of life.”

For as long as humans have been building homes, we’ve been trying to prevent nature from getting in. This structure presents a fundamentally different vision: a building where natural cycles are literally built into the walls. “This is not about aesthetics,” Armstrong says. “It’s about how we can start to reconstruct our relationship between place, nature, and each other.”