As one of the greatest human challenges in history — climate change — looms more pertinently than ever, many architects are racing to create innovative solutions that both mitigate and adapt to the transforming environment. One of the most fascinating avenues of this work is biomimicry, where designers are studying and imitating naturally occurring structures and processes from nature, and using these learnings to inform and optimize their work. Photo.Synth.Etica by EcoLogic Studio, which harnesses photosynthesis to remove urban air pollution, is one excellent prototype of this approach.
London-based architecture firm EcoLogicStudio — led by architects Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto — conceived Photo.Synth.Etica through a partnered consortium with the Urban Morphogenesis Lab at UCL and the Synthetic Landscapes Lab at University of Innsbruck. Together, the team created a living “urban curtain” that is designed to sequester carbon while gently resting over the façade of buildings.
The architects envisioned the curtain as a product that could not only be integrated into new buildings, but also retrofitted over existing buildings around the world. A Photo.Synth.Etica prototype was stretched over two floors of the Printworks building in Dublin during the 2018 Climate Innovation Summit held in November.
The prototype is made of 16 bioplastic panels, each measuring 2 meters wide and 7 meters tall. Every individual panel is a photo-bioreactor embedded with serpentine tubes that serve as incubators for algae. The design uses daylight and air to feed the living micro-algal cultures, harnessing the naturally carbon-sequestering process of photosynthesis.
According to EcoLogicStudio, “smart cities, smart homes, autonomous vehicles [and] robotic factories dominate the current panorama of popular futuristic scenarios.” But in addition to these popular (and somewhat flashier) avenues of design, argues the firm, architects must reframe their practices to support and engender other beneficial societal transitions. Lightweight and adaptive, the “urban curtain” provokes thoughtful conversation surrounding just one of the ways this transition could unfold.
With Photo.Synth.Etica, unfiltered urban air enters from the bottom of the curtain, at which point air bubbles naturally travel upwards through the watery algae medium in the bioplastic tubes. In real time, the algae curtain captures and stores approximately one kilo of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each day, which is the equivalent of 20 large trees. At the same time, photosynthesized oxygen is released back into the air from the top of the unit.
Beyond carbon sequestration, Photo.Synth.Etica offers several additional advantages. Firstly, the entire curtain doubles as a sun-shading device, effectively reducing demands on the structure’s HVAC system. Additionally, the reusable biomass produced by the curtain can be harnessed to create fuel or recycled into bioplastic material, such as that originally used to make the curtain. Finally, since the algae is bioluminescent, producing a faint glow during the darker hours of the day.
According to Photo.Synth.Etica, “In the Anthropocene age, a non-anthropocentric mode of reasoning — and the deployment of cutting-edge technologies based on digital and biological intelligence — could be at the core of urban design.” Further, they must “stimulate our collective sensibility to recognize patterns of reasoning across disciplines, materialities and technological regimes.”