Algae, aquatic plants that capture carbon dioxide from the air and use photosynthesis to generate oxygen and energy, are a versatile plant. A natural solution to food, energy and climate issues, it can also be used in the building industry by taking sustainability to a new level.

Dr. Peter Ralph, Executive Director of the University of Technology Sydney Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster, and part of the research team, says,

I want the public to accept the use of algae in everyday life. I want people to see more of this – natural solution to the energy, food, economic and climate challenges facing our world today. Algae can be used to make almost anything that society needs – plastic, food, pharmaceuticals, paints, carpet and cosmetics, for starters. We think there could be up to 300,000 species of algae out there, and that we are only culturing about 100 of those.

The researchers in Australia are developing a prototype flat façade building panel containing algae that may be used in the construction industry. Imagine a tempered/heat resistant glass panel containing a living, bubbling lava lamp syrup of microalgae. Not only would it look interesting but would benefit the environment as well.

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Living algae facade panel on the prototype exhibit in Hamburg, Germany.

Sara Wilkinson, Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney and part of the research team, says,

Our goal is to successfully integrate algae into the built environment and use it to heat buildings, fertilize rooftop gardens and filter exhaust fumes. There is demonstrated success of living algae bioreactors overseas, but nothing of such scale has been explored in Australia, until now.

In 2013, a building powered by algae was exhibited in Hamburg, Germany. Germany, Thailand and Switzerland are already incorporating algae in urban building rooftops, facades and over highways (to capture exhaust fumes).

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Rendering of the prototype "living building" in Hamburg, Germany.

The University of Technology Sydney is spearheading a Living Algae Building research program in collaboration with Research Engagement Manager Dr. Benton Hamdorf from the university and director of the Australian division of the architectural firm Atelier Ten, Paul Stoller. Working with a leading engineering firm, they are fabricating a panel with plans to exhibit it on the University campus to pique interest.

Wilkinson says,

I mean, how could you walk past a building with bubbling green wall panels and not stop to learn more about it? It’s eye-catching. It’s unique and it’s decarbonizing the atmosphere, all at the same time.

Wilkinson recently conducted a feasibility study on behalf of the City of Sydney to determine the pluses and minuses of an algae building. She interviewed over 20 people in the building industry – designers, engineers, developers, planners, architects, sustainability managers and certifiers. The reception has been enthusiastic.

Wilkinson says,

One of the architects we spoke to said that they’ve spent most of their professional careers helping design facades that purposely avoid things growing on them or having water flow through them – so you can see how such a concept would raise lots of questions. 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?” So what we recommend is specifying toughened glazing in certain areas.

The research is ongoing, with the living panel expected to be unveiled this year.

Nancy Loyan Schuemann

Nancy Loyan Schuemann is a writer specializing in architecture, safes, profiles, histories and a multi-published fiction and non-fiction author and is Nailah, Middle Eastern dancer.

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