Slime palaces

An experimental apartment block in Hamburg heated by a skin of algae.

It looks ordinary enough:
However, this is as far-out a building as you’ll ever likely to see. The green coating isn’t paint, it’s algae behind glass in a thin exothermic [Update] bioreactor.
The circuit includes biogas extraction and of course the algae eat carbon dioxide, so the building – with other less ostentatious tweaks – is claimed to be completely carbon-neutral.

Hamburg is cool and wet, so buildings need heating almost all of the year. The technology will therefore never take off in Haight-Ashbury or the liberal bits of Beverly Hills. [Update: this speculation retracted below in comments] But there’s nothing to stop Barack Obama from building himself a carbon-neutral slime palace retreat in Maine or Minnesota. And how about the Governor’s mansion in Alaska?

IBA website in German, via CleanTechnica.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “Slime palaces”

  1. I missed that at ars. Very cool, thanks for sharing. Let’s hope some good ideas come out of here – we need some more silver buckshot.

  2. I don’t understand your geographical limitations. Hamburg is cool. meaning the algea are using the building’s artificial heat? And Beverly Hills doesn’t heat? Huh?
    If it works in Hamburg, it will work better in BV. As for SF, Mark Twain said the coldest winter he ever spent was one summer in San Francisco.

    1. I may well have got this wrong. As I first understood it, the algae in the skin produce heat directly, but this can’t be right as photosynthesis is endothermic not exothermic. The heat comes from burning the biogas from breaking down the harvested algae in a bioreactor. So yes, if it works at all, there’s no obvious geographical limitation.

      Obama’s presidential library will presumably be in Chicago, which gets similar sun to Hamburg, so my slime palace proposal is still running,

      1. Granting that Obama’s political career began in Illinois, I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that his library will go in Chicago. Eisenhower’s library is in Abilene, Kansas where he grew up. He was never a political figure of note in Kansas. Obama still has ties to Hawai’i, and the University of Hawai’i would appear to me to have a reasonable claim to be the site of his library.

      2. Actually this is incorrect – while photosynth may be endothermic the overall reactions of energy production and storage include more exothermic than endothermic reactions (2nd law of thermo) so the growing cells will produce heat. Plants and algae respire as well as photosynthesize! they are net carbon sinks when growing, but if they aren’t growing they are CO2 sources (since it takes energy to maintain a cell). Nevertheless, this is a great tech idea, and it is basically a big green solar panel that can potentially generate heat and biofuel and integrate it into an urban setting. Hope it doesn’t stink though :). Also hope it doesn’t get contaminated with bacteria…hmm

    2. As an SF native I have an obligation to point out that there is no record of Mark Twain ever saying that.

  3. It may be good as far as it goes, but in the U.S. it will be built on new-developed land made developable by a new federallysubsidized freeway and accessible only by car and served by a giant single-use parking lot ten times the footprint of the building, and someone will get LEED building sustainability credits for it.

  4. I’m curious to know how far below freezing the system can tolerate. And really curious to know what happens if electric power fails.

    1. This is a pretty autonomous building energetically. It has its own source of electricity for pumps from solar panels, and heat from the biogas, so they can surely keep the algae in a comfortably warm soup in most circumstances. I’d expect them to throw in some battery storage – this is a technology demonstration, and you wouldn’t expect all the choices to be economic at current prices.
      The problem that worries me is biofilms and clogging up. Many algae are designed to stick to rocks. Are they using special non-stick coatings in the tubes?

      1. Depending upon how much fluid is in there, Solar Hot Water should be able to keep the little critters warm on coldest days – should be on such a building anyway so a couple redirects from the building to the skin is feasible, and the pumps could run on solar. At night batteries could move water.

  5. The green wall in the picture is just a green painted wall, and a peculiarly garish one. The algae skin is shown in the third picture on the page Katja linked to.
    No, the algae don’t “produce heat”. They absorb sunlight and convert CO2 into hydrocarbons that can be turned into fuel such as biogas, then you burn the gas. The yield is probably no more than 8% of the radiant energy striking the building wall, so the point of this exercise compared to having a plain passive solar collector on the wall to heat water escapes me, especially if heat is all you want (as opposed to cooking gas or vehicle fuel or electricity).

  6. Here is a better page written for an english speaking audience rather than translated. After reading this my comments above don’t make any sense. This sounds very cool (sorry). As is made clear, the algae are harvested to create biofuel periodically, making it more versatile than just an electrical or water heat generator – It also provides shading for the building. What I don’t get is how this is something that can last – glass cracks or breaks, and it seems like this would be expensive to maintain?

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