Cyborg Walls: How Microbial Fuel Cells Could Turn Your House Into a Living Machine

Pat Finn Pat Finn

Cyborgs used to be the stuff of fantasy. The term — a portmanteau that combines the words “cybernetic” and “organism” — was coined in 1960, but the basic idea was around long before that. Since the 1818 publication of Frankenstein a novel in which a mad scientist utilizes the then-novel technique of channeling electricity for the fantastical purpose of reanimating a dead body — the concern that technology could fundamentally blur the line between the living and the nonliving has been a recurring theme in science fiction.

While Frankenstein never came to pass, “cyborg” technology has, albeit in more humble forms than what one finds in a film like “RoboCop.” Take, for instance, microbial fuel cells — a technology that manipulates the organic processes of microscopic organisms in order to produce electricity that can be used to power machines. “Microbial fuel cells are energy transducers that exploit the metabolic activity of the constituent microbes to break down organic waste and generate electricity,” explained Ioannis Ieropoulos, professor at the University of West England Bristol’s Robotics Laboratory.

This technology sounds quite complicated, but early versions of it existed as far back as the 1930s. Interest in using microbes to generate energy has come to the fore in recent decades, as researchers look for affordable, clean energy sources. Now a team of researchers based at the University of the West of England Bristol has begun researching how to integrate microbial fuel cells into building materials. The resulting technology, called “smart bricks,” could filter air and water and bring energy to various parts of the building. In short, they could turn your house into a cybernetic organism. The project is part of the Living Architecture (LIAR) project, which brings together researchers from various universities across Europe to research how microbial technology could be integrated with architecture.

What if these bricks … came to life?; via Inhabitat

“The technologies we are developing aim to transform the places where we live and work, enabling us to co-live with the building,” said Andrew Adamatzky, the professor leading the UWE Bristol team. “Each smart brick is an electrical analogous computer. A building made of such bricks will be a massive-parallel computing processor.”

The team claims that the bricks would be programmed to respond to conditions inside and outside the building, moderating the environment to meet changing needs. “Depending on how they’re programmed,” wrote Michael Irving in New Atlas, “these bioreactor walls will be able to take in inputs such as gray water, carbon dioxide, sunlight, algae, bacteria and nutrients and in turn produce resources like ‘polished’ water, oxygen, electricity, heat, biodegradable detergents, biomass and biofluorescence.”

Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture at the U.K.’s Newcastle University, pulled no punches in her description of the somewhat grotesque yet compelling idea behind the project. “The best way to describe what we’re trying to create is a ‘biomechanical cow’s stomach,’” she said. “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 project brings together living architecture, computing and engineering to find a new way to tackle global issues like sustainability.”

Le Corbusier once said that houses are “machines for living in.” If the technology UWE Bristol is developing catches on, the house of the future may be a living machine.

Cover image courtesy of UWE Bristol

Pat Finn Author: Pat Finn
Pat Finn is a high school English teacher and a freelance writer on art, architecture, and film. He believes, with Orwell, that "good prose is like a windowpane," but his study of architecture has shown him that a window is only as good as the landscape it looks out on. Pat is based in the New York metro area.
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