The Future is Here: Vertical Algae Farms

waterlilly1Walls may be the next frontier in in urban farming, allowing residents of large buildings to cultivate food for local consumption. Already, rooftop gardens are already fairly common, the use of exterior walls for growing spaces is still considered problematic. While certain strains of edible greens might grow in a “vertical farm”, root vegetables, tubers and fruits aren’t exactly practical options. However, a vertical algae farm just might work, and provide urban residents with a source of nutrition while it cleans the air.

That’s the idea behind Italian architect Cesare Griffa’s new concept, which is known as the WaterLilly system. Basically, this algae-filled structure, which can be attached to the façade of a building, is made up of a series of individual chambers that contain algae and water. After a few days or weeks, the algae can be harvested and used for energy, food, cosmetics, or pharmaceuticals, with a small amount left behind to start the next growing cycle.

waterlilly2In addition to being completely non-reliant on fossil fuels, these algae also take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen while growing. Compared to a tree, micro-algae are about 150 to 200 times more efficient at sucking carbon out of the air, making them far more useful in urban settings than either parks or green spaces. Unfortunately, public perception is a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to using microorganisms in the pursuit of combating Climate Change and pollution.

As Griffa himself remarked:

Micro-organisms like algae are like bacteria–it’s one of those things that in our culture people try to get rid of. But algae offer incredible potential because of their very intense photosynthetic activity.

waterlilly3Each system is custom designed for a specific wall, since it’s important to have the right conditions for the algae to thrive. Too little sun isn’t good for growth, but too much sun will cook the organisms. Griffa is working on his first large-scale application now, which will be installed in the Future Food District curated by Carlo Ratti Associates at Expo 2015 in Milan. And it won’t be the first project to incorporate algae-filled walls. A new building in Germany is entirely powered by algae growing outside.

But as Griffa indicates, there’s no lack of wall space to cover, and plenty of room for different approaches:

Urban facades and roofs represent billions of square meters that instead of being made of an inanimate material such as concrete, could become clever photosynthetic surfaces that respond to the current state of climate warming.

And in that, he’s correct. In today’s world, where urban sprawl, pollution, and the onset of Climate Change are all mounting, there’s simply no shortage of ideas, nor the space to test them. As such, it is not far-fetched at all to suspect that in the coming years, algae farms, artificial trees, coral webbing, and many other proposed solutions will be appearing in major cities all over the world.


Climate Crisis: India Flood Death Toll Passes 1,000

india-floodIn recent days, my attention has been pretty firmly fixed on Alberta and the Canadian Priaries, due to the flooding that’s been taking place and forced the evacuation of 175,000 people – some of whom I’m related to. However, this morning I learned that other regions of the world, one’s which are far more accustomed to natural disasters, are also being effected, and more severely so.

This story comes from India, where once again, unpredictable weather patterns are causing a mass displacement of human beings. Every year, people living on the subcontinent are forced to deal with torrential rains – monsoons – which lead to overflowing river banks. However, in recent years, the unpredictable nature of these patterns have become a severe source of death, displacement and property damage.

india-flood4The province of Uttarakhand is home to some of India’s holiest shrines, and is also one of many parts of India where the Ganges river traverses. During the Monsoon’s that come in late summer, flooding is common and even depended on for the sake of farming. Every year, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus make the pilgrimage to Uttarakhand during the summer months hoping to get in before the rains begin.

However, this year the monsoon rains arrived early, catching hundreds of thousands of tourists, pilgrims and local residents of guard. Tens of thousands of people remained stranded in high mountain passes and temple towns after the torrential rains washed away homes and roads and triggered landslides that cut off communication links with large parts of the state nearly a week ago.

india-flood1About 10,000 army and paramilitary troops, members of the disaster management agency and volunteers have taken part in six days of rescue and relief efforts. However, helicopter rescue efforts – which have been an essential part of the rescue effort so far – were suspended when dense fog descended on the Himalayan region this Sunday. Luckily, the army began resorting to building makeshift bridges and people were being rescued by road.

All told, some 80,000 people by road and air, according to a state government spokesman. The exact number of people who died in the heavy downpours and flooding of the Ganges River and its tributaries won’t be known until rescue efforts end. However, the state’s chief minister told reporters late on Saturday that the death toll had reached one-thousand.

india-flood2The rains in Uttarakhand were said to have been the heaviest in nearly 80 years and more rain is expected in the worst-hit districts of Chamoli and Uttarkashi over the next few days. According to meteorologists, an unusual clash of weather systems from opposite directions is to blame, as the monsoon advancing towards the west of South Asia combined with westerly winds for an unusually long time and with an extraordinary intensity, resulting in days of torrential rains.

And while India is no stranger to floods – over 3 million people were displaced when the Kosi river in Bihar burst its banks in 2008 – this year’s came as a shock due to their sudden appearance and intensity. Not only were the rains were six times more forceful than usual, they came on the heels of one of the weakest monsoon’s in 40 years, which left crops stricken by drought. Still, climate change experts are anything but surprises.

india-flood3In its fourth assessment report in 2007, the Inter- Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that more extreme droughts, floods, and storms, would become commonplace in the future, and that these intense weather conditions would follow in close succession to each other, often in the same areas. In addition to this latest flood, several other volatile weather patterns predicted by the IPCC are beginning to show in India.

In the northwest alone, the water table is falling by about 1.6 inches per year, according to the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission. At least half of India’s precipitation comes from the annual monsoon rains, and as they become increasingly diminished and unpredictable, the country faces an imminent threat of extreme water shortages.

Countries_by_population_density.svgChanging rainfall patterns aren’t the only climate- change effect threatening India’s water supply: Himalayan glaciers — the source for the many Indian rivers such as the Ganges — are melting at a rapid rate as a result of warmer temperatures. And the Doni river, whose water many consider no longer fit for human consumption, is gaining notoriety for its unpredictable nature — flash floods one day, barely a trickle the next.

This is just another indication of the effects Climate Change is having around the world. In developing regions of the world, especially those that are closer to the equator, rising temperatures mean weather systems that vacillate between drought and heavy rains, which has a devastating effect on agriculture. The combination of dry weather and powerful storms causes topsoil, the lifeblood of farming, to grow dry and then wash away.

India-Pakistan_Borderlands_at_NightWhat’s more, the majority of humanity lives in this region, which encompasses Central America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa,  the Middle East, South Asia and China. And in areas like the Indo-Gangetic Plain –  the densely-populated river valley that stretches from Pakistan to northern India – the combination of drought and floods will lead to hundreds of millions of deaths and refugees.

Factor in the number of deaths and displacements caused by rising tides and the effect on coastal regions, and you see why Climate Change experts are so very concerned about the problem. Not only is the environment and our way of life at stake here, our very existence is as well. The best we can hope for right now is that this season of crisis abates so we can get to the crucial work of getting our act together and developing cleaner ways of living.

And will somebody please start deploying those artificial trees and other carbon capture operations!


The Future is Here: The Air Scrubbing Skyscraper!

aircleaning_skyscraperAir pollution has always been a problem in urban centers. But with the massive industrialization and urban expansion taking place in some of the most heavily populated regions of the world (China and India being foremost), the issue of how to deal with increasing emissions is especially important. And more and more, researchers and environmentalists are considering options that hits air pollution where it lives.

Two such individuals are Danny Mui and Benjamin Sahagun, a pair of architects who have devised a rather novel concept for dealing with the thick layers of carbon dioxide pollution that are so common to major urban centers. In essence, it is a pair of buildings that scrub CO2 emissions from the air, and thus marries the concept of Carbon Capture technology to urban planning.

artificial_trees1Dubbed the CO2ngress Gateway Towers, the concept involves two crooked buildings that are outfitted with a filtration system. This system then feeds the captured CO2 to algae grown in the building which then converts into biofuels for use in vehicles. In this respect, it is not unlike the artificial tree concept designed by Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University.

Much like these “trees”, the carbon capture technology involves using a entirely natural process to absorb CO2 from the air and then combine it with water, thus causing a chemical reaction that results in a fossil fuel precursor which can easily be converted. This fuel can then be consumed as gasoline or ethanol, thus giving people the ability to keep burning fossil fuels while they research cleaner, more sustainable sources of fuel.

aircleaning_skyscraper3Ultimately, the idea here is not to offer a be-all, end-all solution to the problem, but rather to buy the human race time to clean up its act. And by ensuring that carbon capture technology is available in large urban dwellings, they are looking to ensure that one of the many symptoms of urban sprawl – i.e. large urban dwellings – are part of the solution.

Said Mui and Sahagun on the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) website:

The scrubbers are the first step in a process that generates fuel for a fleet of eco-friendly cars for building residents. The system raises public awareness of air pollution and its impact on the health of Chicagoans.

aircleaning_skyscraper1Aside from the scrubbers, the buildings boast some other impressive features to cut down on urban annoyances. These include the “double skin facade”- two layers of windows – that can cut down on outside traffic noise. In addition, the spaces on either side of the buildings’ central elevator core can be used as outdoor terraces for residents.

Apparently, Mui and Sahagun worked on the project while students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where it earned them an honorable mention in the 2012 CTBUH student competition. According to Mui, they created the structure after the semester ended, but there are no immediate plans to build it.

aircleaning_skyscraper2However, given the growing interest in arcologies and urban structures that reduce our impact on the environment, it is likely to garner serious interest very soon. Especially in China, where air pollution is so severe that it causes up to 750,000 deaths from respiratory illness a year and cities are still growing, buildings like this one could easily become the stone that kills two birds.


Artificial Trees to Fight Climate Change?

The indices of Climate Change have been growing in the past few decades, culminating in some serious trends that have left the scientific community worried and the general public far from calm. In addition to Arctic sea ice levels reaching a record low and record high temperatures being set during the summer, North Americans also experienced the worst wildfire season in recorded history. Over a million acres of forest burned up in the US alone, but the extended range of the fires reached from as far south as Texas to as far north as Nunavut.

For many years now, those on the forefront of climate science have been arguing that things will get a lot worse before they get better, and argue that some drastic geoengineering projects might be the only way to avert disaster. Many of these involve advanced climate science, such as evaporating more water around the mid-latitudes or “capturing” carbon in the upper atmosphere and converting it to harmless compounds. But as Gaia Vince, a science writer from BBC’s Future pointed out, the solution may be as a simple as improving upon an existing “carbon capture” technology, otherwise known as the Tree.

For some time now, climatologists and naturalists have understood the role that trees, plants, algae and plankton play in the carbon cycle. Unfortunately, the long life-cycle of trees, and the various ecological issues surrounding the artificial stimulation of algae and plants, make this aspect of ecoengineering somewhat impractical. What’s more, the growing demand for agricultural space is also putting pressure on existing green spaces. As our population continues to grow and more farmland is needed to provided for them, simply planting plants and trees more may not even be an option.

Luckily, there is an invention that takes all this into account and provides a possible solution: the artificial trees. Designed by Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, this “tree” is capable of absorbing CO2 from the air using “leaves” that are 1,000 times more efficient than the real thing, but at the same time does not require exposure to sunlight in order to carry out the process.

As Vince himself describes them: “The leaves look like sheets of papery plastic and are coated in a resin that contains sodium carbonate, which pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and stores it as a bicarbonate (baking soda) on the leaf. To remove the carbon dioxide, the leaves are rinsed in water vapour and can dry naturally in the wind, soaking up more carbon dioxide.”

Based on Lackner calculations, a single tree would be capable of removing one tonne of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere in a single day. By that reckoning, a forest of ten million would be able to remove 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in a single year, the equivalent of about 10% of our global annual carbon dioxide emissions. One hundred million would solve our emission crisis altogether!

As for the resulting mass that the process creates, Lackner claims that could be turned into liquid fuels to power vehicles. In fact, when CO2 and water are combined, the end result is what is known as syngas, a fuel that is easily converted into methanol and diesel. So basically, while the artificial trees are scrubbing the air of fossil fuel emissions, they are also actively creating the means to generate more fossil fuel. Might seem ironic, but this in turn will allow humanity to keep using their carbon engines, all the while knowing that they are producing less than the trees are extracting. This will give the scientists of the world more time to invent a clean alternative to the fossil fuel engine, and that by the time they do it won’t already be too late.

Although some question the viability of this entire process, mainly where the issue of total cost is concerned, Lackney stresses that as global fuel supplies dwindle, fuel companies will see the wisdom in buying into this process, mainly because it offers them the possibility of fuel retention. Yes, by investing in artificial trees, oil and gas companies will be able to turn their own carbon emissions back into hydrocarbon fuel. Which will come in handy if the oil runs out as quickly as some analysts say it will. In addition, us consumers can expect a break the pump if it all goes well!

Does this strike you as ironic, or just a weird and interesting take on recycling? Who knows? All that is certain is that the technology is making some pretty bold forecasts, and if it should prove successful, we are likely to see a great deal of investment towards this new method. I can see it now, countless roofs and skyscrapers with fields of artificial trees lining their roofs. Water circulation systems that capture the CO2 once its sucked off the leaves and then channeled down to the fuel cells in the basement. And the rest trucked off by trucks that bear the logo of Haliburton, Shell, and Petro Canada. And for once, the drivers won’t feel a lick of shame!