Living bricks can generate energy in the home and wean humanity off fossil fuels

Issue date: 08 February 2021

The Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment’ (ALICE) research consortium will showcase at The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference today.

ALICE is a collaboration between the University of the West of England, Newcastle University and Translating Nature. The consortium has successfully created a bio-digital communication interface with the ‘living wall’ prototype, which was developed as part of the Living Architecture project that could both revolutionise housing and replace fossil fuels.

The ALICE prototype brings together several ground-breaking threads of bio-digital research. Together it creates a living, breathing, energy-generating microbial system that can simultaneously supply DC power to homes and can, through augmented reality (AR), communicate how productive and ‘healthy it is.

The core Microbial Fuel Cells (MFC) technology, which is the live ‘engine’ driving ALICE, stemmed from work undertaken by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the Bristol Bioenergy Centre at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in UWE Bristol.

In 2010 he was awarded a five-year EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) Career Acceleration Fellowship, which built upon the ground-breaking ‘EcoBot’ research, also supported by EPSRC; many of the findings from the five-year fellowship underpin subsequent projects, such as ALICE.

The base of the ALICE prototype is a partition of ‘living bricks’ which can form entire walls and structures. These living bricks contain microbes that use liquid waste to generate energy, which can then be turned into electricity and clean water.

In order to understand how productive the microbes are, ALICE uses biosensors that record data produced by the microbial electrons; ALICE then fuses biological and digital technologies to converse with the microbes and see how happy they are, and state whether they need to be fed or warmed to generate more bioelectricity.

Self-powered by the microbial fuel cells inside each brick, ALICE can not only be used as a source of household energy but can also transform domestic liquid wastes into clean water fit for reuse.

A digital overlay of the information gathered from ALICE’s conversations with the microbial life in each brick, is then displayed back to the household using AR; currently this is available on a live web server, with animations representing bioelectrochemical reactions.

Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos said: “It is a great privilege to have our ALICE project introduced at The American Association for the Advancement of Science. The excellent work from our partners at Translating Nature and the University of Newcastle has transformed scientifically complex reactions occurring inside MFCs, into live animations with relatable indicators, fed by real-time data. This makes MFCs more acceptable as we move forward with commercialising the technology”.

UWE Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve West said: “Our world is changing fast and the climate crisis and fuel poverty requires us to adapt and innovate our technological solutions to reduce our impact on the worlds fragile ecosystems.

“This project has taken microbial fuel cell technology to the next level. Our challenge now is to capitalise on the science and translate it at pace into our global real-world living. Lives can be transformed and improved globally as we adopt and spread the science and technology advances.”

Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, Executive Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UKRI, said: “This is a really revolutionary project which could change our residential environment and have a significant impact on how we power our homes in the future. EPSRC is proud to have funded the early investments that led to this work.”

“The results published today are a great example of a collaborative effort in tackling a key issue of the 21st century and should be celebrated as both an achievement for the future of sustainable living and an accomplishment of the science intrinsic to engineering biology.”

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