Algae: A Living Solar Panel

BIQ House5 900x600One of this year’s unveilings at the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg, Germany illustrates not only innovative design, but function. Designed by Splitterwerk Architects and funded by the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA), or the Internationale Architecture Exhibition, the €3.4 million, four-story, 15-unit apartment complex has a façade unlike any other building in the world.

The Bio Intelligent Quotient (BIQ) House is the first of its kind to have an exterior composed of an “intelligent” bioreactor, a man-made device that supports a living environment. The façade, a result of three years of research by Colt International on SSC Ltd’s bio-reactor concept and design work led by Arup, is adorned with 129 algae tanks on the Southeast and Southwest sides of the building that serve as culturing stations for algae, which is later used as a biofuel. The louvers are automated, turning tanks towards the sun and allowing algae to grow quickly while also being supplied with nutrients and CO2 through a tubing system. Heat produced by the algae is captured and used as energy.

The IBA Hamburg provides this description of the process:

The BIQ has a holistic energy concept: it draws all of the energy needed to generate electricity and heat from renewable sources – fossil fuels remain untouched. It is able to generate energy using the algae biomass harvested from its own façade. Moreover, the façade collects energy by absorbing the light that is not used by the algae and generating heat, like in a solar thermal unit, which is then either used directly for hot water and heating, or can be cached in the ground using borehole heat exchangers — 80 metre-deep holes filled with brine. This remarkably sustainable energy concept is therefore capable of creating a cycle of solar thermal energy, geothermal energy, a condensing boiler, local heat, and the capture of biomass using the bio-reactor façade.BIQ louver

An exhibition in the truest sense, the building provides opportunities for residents as well as passerby to witness the renewable energy in action. Balconies provide occupants with a view of the nearby parkland as well as the nature contained in the panels, which is capable of producing up to five times as much biomass per 100,000 square feet as a typical land-dwelling plant used in a similar process. Onlookers observe the greening of the tanks—photosynthesis in process—as the algae breaks down carbon dioxide, capturing its energy. Employing this building as a visible illustration of the processes at work was an intent of the designers.

While innovative designs have always been an item of intrigue, in a rapidly-changing world where a sustainable way of living becomes a must the most important question is: can it be replicated? Can it be used in different applications, in different environments, and is it a viable solution for passive structures? The idea of using algae as a biofuel is now being adopted in Brazil, and work on the first algae-based biofuel plant is set for late 2013. The plant is expected to produce over 300,000 gallons of biofuels a year. But how viable is the BIQ’s algae-tank exterior for future residences or commercial buildings? Scientists and engineers alike will assess the over time in order to find ways to adapt the idea for other structures. While the primary focus of the façade is the renewable energy source within, the installation has the potential to serve buildings in multiple climates and locales; the algae tank panels provide shading in areas with bright sun and also insulate the building from heat, cold, and sound, making them a possible solution to a wide variety of needs. Though currently one of a kind, the algae-clad building has the potential to become a workable solution for our sustainable future.

Photo credits: Arup (top); IBA Hamburg GmbH, Johannes Arlt (body)

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Author: Samantha Longshore

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