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'Smart bricks' that recycle wastewater, generate electricity being developed

A new effort is taking a foundational approach to addressing environmental issues. Literally. Thanks to a new endeavor coordinated by Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, the very materials with which we construct our buildings may be the future in green architecture.

Meet LIAR, or Living Architecture, a project that hopes to develop smart bricks capable of recycling wastewater and generating electricity. By utilizing the natural resources found in sunlight, wastewater, and air, Living Architecture aims to ultimately develop so-called bioreactor walls that can be used across housing, public buildings, and office spaces.

“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, and the project’s coordinator. “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.”

Biofilm that will be used in the smart bricks

Biofilm that will be used in the smart bricks

Each brick’s microbial fuel cell will in turn contain “programmable synthetic microorganisms” created by experts at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Different chambers will serve different purposes, with some microorganisms capable of cleaning water, while others reclaim phosphate, generate electricity, or create new detergents.

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“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,” Armstrong added.

Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, director of Bristol Centre for Bioenergy at UWE Bristol, echoed these sentiments, noting, “We are very excited with this project, since it will allow us to push the boundaries of the [microbial fuel cell] technology and help us put it in the context of a modern household.”

By effectively producing buildings that are biological computers, the LIAR team just might be on the path to transforming the construction industry. As Professor Andrew Adamatzky, LIAR project director for UWE Bristol, explained, “A building made from bioreactors will become a large-scale living organism that addresses all environmental and energy needs of the occupants. Walls in buildings comprised of smart bricks containing bioreactors will integrate massive-parallel computing processors where millions of living creatures sense the occupants in the building and the internal and external environmental conditions.”

So, who knows — we may soon be living in a building that is, more or less, “a massive-parallel computing processor.”