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Construction Corner: Smarter than the average brick

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Smarter than the average brick
Korky Koroluk

Bricks haven’t changed much for hundreds and hundreds of years.

That’s why someone who is a bit "slow" is sometimes cruelly referred to as being "thick as a brick."

Now though, we have research teams working on a whole new class of bricks — smart bricks, they’re calling them. Their research holds out hope that smart bricks will be useful for much more than just building walls.

Last week I told readers about something called microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that convert chemical energy to electrical energy through the action of micro-organisms like bacteria, and like many forms of algae. An American firm, Cambrian Innovation, is field testing its MFCs for treating sewage while at the same time producing modest amounts of electricity.

But much of the most exciting work is still ramping up in Europe, where a research project called Living Architecture got underway in April.

The bureaucracy over there has shortened the two words, Living Architecture, into an unfortunate acronym, LIAR. At a time when science is being questioned on many fronts, including climate change, one could have hoped for a better name. But LIAR it is. And the purpose of the research is to develop a modular bioreactor/wall based on MFC technology and a variety of bacteria with different functions.

The work is being co-ordinated by researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in the U.K. Other team members are located at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, the Spanish National Research Council, Liquifer Systems Group in Vienna, Explora SRL in Rome and the Universities of Trento and Florence, also in Italy.

The objective of LIAR is to do what Cambrian Innovation is doing in the U.S. — develop a system for treating wastewater and generating electricity at the same time. But LIAR hopes to take its work beyond that. The bricks it’s working on will change and adapt based on their environment, by monitoring and modifying air in the building, even recognizing occupants.

If they’re successful, whole buildings will be able to lead second lives as individual sewage processors and power generators.

Rachel Armstrong, a researcher at U of Newcastle, likens the system they’re aiming for to a "biomechanical cow’s stomach."

She explains that a cow’s stomach "contains different chambers, each processing organic waste for a different, but overall related, purpose."

She adds that the system scientists are aiming for is like a digestive system for your home or your office.

With the smart bricks, different chambers will serve different purposes, with some micro-organisms capable of cleaning water and others reclaiming phosphate, creating new detergents or generating electricity.

Once you turn your imagination loose the sky seems to be the limit. Researchers have also mentioned such things as monitoring nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide and monitoring and adjusting visible light, indoor temperature and several more possible functions.

Andrew Adamatzky, of the U of West of England, likens the MFCs to computers. Each brick would be a computer, he says, and as a wall they would form a parallel computing processor.

"A building made from bioreactors will become a large-scale living organism that addresses all environmental and energy needs of the occupants," he says. "Walls in buildings comprised of smart bricks containing bioreactors will be…computer processors where millions of living creatures sense the occupants in the building and the internal and external environmental conditions."

Researchers seem to have taken the Living Architecture theme to heart. Reading their comments you see that many of them refer to living "with" the building, not "in" it. The research is funded for three years and will cost €3.2 million. That’s a bit more than C$4.6 million.

We don’t yet know what the result will be, but of one thing you can be sure: We’ll have devices that are smarter than your average brick.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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