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Biotechnology: The key to zero energy buildings

02 April 2020

A new joint venture between Newcastle University and Northumbria University is exploring how to use biotechnology to create zero-energy buildings. Ben Bridgens of Newcastle University reports.

Biotechnology: The key to zero energy buildings
Zero-energy buildings of the future. Image credit: Shutterstock

For nearly 200 years the Institution of Civil Engineers’ charter had defined the profession as, ‘the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man’.

In practice this has meant using vast quantities of energy and primarily fossil fuels, to extract and process materials from the ground to create the steel, concrete, brick and cement from which the majority of buildings and infrastructure are constructed.

Such buildings are energy intensive to heat and cold and are made from inert materials which do not respond to the dynamic climatic conditions and require maintenance to ensure their continued functioning.

In reality the great sources of power in nature are abundant energy from the sun, photosynthesis, growth, reproduction, evolution, adaptation and symbiotic ecosystems − complex interacting systems which share nutrients and energy. So, rather than trying to use energy-intensive industrial processes to create zero-energy buildings and infrastructure, civil engineers should consider harnessing the power of nature using biotechnology.

New biotechnology hub

The Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE) is a new joint initiative between Newcastle University and Northumbria University. It was set up in August last year with £8 million funding from Research England.

HBBE sees huge untapped potential in biotechnology to change the way the built environment is constructed, operated and maintained. Its initial work will focus on the use of microorganisms across three main areas: living construction, building metabolisms and microbial environment.

Living construction means growing construction materials using microbes and fungus. This will involve research into microbially synthesised mineral crystals to replace cement, bacterial production of cellulose fibres and bioplastics, and bacterial spore-based materials which change shape in response to water.

Such materials have the potential to go beyond simply replacing existing construction materials with environmentally benign alternatives, to adding new functionality including self-healing materials and responsive materials which adapt to the internal or external environment.

Metabolisms and microbiomes

Building metabolism research involves developing new microbial technologies which operate rather like a building’s stomach, processing the occupants’ waste and generating energy and other useful products. Technologies will range from small-scale bioreactors for micro-generation of electricity from human waste, production of nutrients for growing food from human and food waste,and development of enzymes which can degrade plastics to create valuable products within the home.

HBBE will also investigate ways in which people might live in greater harmony with environmental microbes and viruses in a healthy ‘microbiome’. New types of biological sensing systems could enable creation of probiotic materials, surfaces and ventilation systems to promote ‘good bacteria’ within buildings.

Full-scale implementation

Many of the individual technologies are already being developed by researchers at laboratory scale. HBBE will work across scales and disciplines, from nano-scale manipulation of genetic information through to developing prototypes, which will involve collaboration between biologists, engineers and architects, all the way to full-scale implementation and testing within an experimental house.

While each of the technologies could be beneficial in their own right, the truly transformative potential will come from developing them together by considering the building and its materials, systems and occupants as a symbiotic system, with ‘waste’ from one process providing ‘food’ for another, to achieve self-sufficient, durable, healthy buildings for the future.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (173 CE1) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

  • Ben Bridgens, Senior Lecturer in Architectural Technology, Newcastle University