Research

Building a Smart Future

Building a Smart Future

Newcastle University experts are devising 'Smart' bricks to improve sustainability

Image of bricks with wires attached

An international partnership co-ordinated by Newcastle University is developing ‘smart’ bricks which can recycle wastewater and generate electricity to transform the places where we live and work. The €3.2m LIAR (Living Architecture) scheme is developing bricks able to extract resources from sunlight, waste water and air. The bricks fit together to create ‘bioreactor walls’ which could then be incorporated in housing, public buildings and office spaces.

“This project is incredibly exciting,” says Professor Rachel Armstrong. “We are tackling the global challenge of sustainability by designing programmable ecosystems for buildings. This project brings together living architecture, computing and engineering.”

The project will transform building façades into biological computers, consisting of bricks that will create useful products from waste. “Imagine that you have a unit in your home that is rather like a water boiler, except it doesn’t use fossil fuels but the metabolisms (the chemical burning) of living things to generate its outputs,” says Professor Armstrong.

By the end of the project in April 2019, each brick will contain a microbial fuel cell, filled with programmable synthetic microorganisms. Robotically activated, each chamber contains 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.

"The best way to describe what we're trying to create is a 'biomechanical cow's stomach'," explains Professor Armstrong. "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 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. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

"Although this project deals with very small amounts of substances, we will be able to gain an insight into how communities might collectively harvest reusable substances from their wastewater. This could potentially create an economy from re-distributing resources through councils or other interested parties, such as washing machine manufacturers," says Professor Armstrong.

 

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