The Perth Photobioreactors

by veryagudo

Emergent Architecture designed this organic fuel production system in response to a solicitation for an art installation by the city of Perth in Western Australia. Rather than responding to the brief with a monumental artwork representing the heritage of Perth, EA’s design consists of an outcropping of human-scale Photobioreactors which relate to the city in a more nuanced way. These devices are intended to operate ontologically at both conceptual and visceral levels, in terms of space, color, luminosity, but also infrastructure and engineering. There are seven elements, tied together by a pleated, color-variegated groundscape which tracks a network of biofuel lines leading across the street to the Perth train station.

This project is an attempt to avoid the trappings of conventional public art which is often associated with large, often modern, expressions of form. This design does not signify — it performs. The Perth Photobioreactors gather energy by way of several interwoven high- and low-tech systems. These include a luminous, artificial photosynthetic system invented by OriginOil in Los Angeles, and thin-film solar transistors woven into ornamental electronic tracery.

The outer shells of the Photobioreactors are fiber-composite monocoque construction, pleated for stiffness. These structures support large transparent polycarbonate apertures to allow in sunlight while also protecting internal moving parts. Inside are coils of transparent acrylic which contain green or red algae colonies. The photosynthetic process of the algae requires carbon dioxide on the front end, and produces bio-fuel or hydrogen at the back-end. These devices therefore simultaneously remediate the environment by removing carbon dioxide from the local atmosphere and generate fuel in a closed-loop, off-the-grid system. One of the implications here is that energy production may, in the future, be super-localized and embedded in daily behaviors, rather than magically available from distant sources.

The benefit of the OriginOil system is that it allows for continued operation in shade and also in complete darkness through the use of a helix of lights inside each algae coil. These lights are triggered by low sunlight, so that at dusk, the cells will begin to turn on, one by one, generating a kaleidoscope of colored light and glowing algae. The result is a technologically ambient urban space, which also conveniently provides ground lighting for passers-by. Electricity required for this lighting is provided by the thin-film solar transistor system embedded in the transparent polycarbonate apertures, which charge during the day.

A simple algae photobioreactor (PBR) is a device that can contain and grow algae. This self-contained system provides a controllable environment where the supply of light, nutrients, carbon dioxide, air, and temperature can be regulated. As an algae photobioreactor is a totally enclosed system it can prevent or at least minimize contamination (from other algae species and bugs), and allows easier cultivation of one algae strain. It also offers better control over a range of other growing conditions, like the pH, light, carbon dioxide, and temperature. In addition, a closed system reduces evaporative water losses, and has lower carbon dioxide losses, which promotes higher cell concentrations – or more grams of algae produced per liter of water.