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Smart bricks will give homes and offices their own 'digestive system'

28 July 2016

'Smart' bricks which can recycle water and generate electricity are being created as part of a new project aiming to transform the places where we live and work.

Image of the biofilm to be used in the smart bricks (Credit: Newcastle University)
Image of the biofilm to be used in the smart bricks (Credit: Newcastle University)

The €3.2m LIAR (Living Architecture) scheme is co-ordinated by Newcastle University and includes experts from the universities of the West of England (UWE Bristol), Trento, the Spanish National Research Council; LIQUIFER Systems Group and EXPLORA.

This project will develop blocks able to extract resources from sunlight, waste water and air. The bricks are able to fit together and create ‘bioreactor walls’ which could then be incorporated in housing, public buildings and office spaces.

Each block will contain a microbial fuel cell, filled with programmable synthetic microorganisms developed by experts at UWE Bristol. Robotically activated, each chamber will contain a variety of microorganisms specifically chosen to clean water, reclaim phosphate, generate electricity and create new detergents. The living cells that will make up the wall will be able to sense their surroundings and respond to them through a series of digitally coordinated mechanisms.

Biomechanical cow's stomach

“The best way to describe what we’re trying to create is a 'biomechanical cow's stomach',” said Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, UK, who 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,” added Professor Armstrong.

Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of Bristol Centre for Bioenergy at UWE Bristol said, “We are very excited with this project, since it will allow us to push the boundaries of the MFC technology and help us put it in the context of a modern household."

Professor Andrew Adamatzky, Director of the Centre for Unconventional Computing at UWE Bristol, who will lead on the digital coordinated mechanisms, added: “We will produce buildings which are biological computers.”

Reclaim phosphate

The researchers also aim to find ways to reclaim phosphate – a mineral which is becoming increasingly scarce – and create new detergents using the blocks.

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.”

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