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Researchers trying to build houses out of algae

"Algae can be used to make almost anything that society needs," said researcher Peter Ralph.

By Brooks Hays
Researchers in Australia want to build walls of algae that can decarbonize the air and convert the sun's rays into usable energy. Photo by UTS
Researchers in Australia want to build walls of algae that can decarbonize the air and convert the sun's rays into usable energy. Photo by UTS

SYDNEY, June 6 (UPI) -- A team of chemists, biologists, energy experts, engineers and architects in Australia are working on a plan to create structural components, like a building facade, out of living algae.

Scientists at the University of Technology Sydney recently published a feasibility study in partnership with the city government of Sydney and are preparing to build a prototype algae wall. The microrganisms living in the facade would convert sunlight into energy and oxygen.

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Researchers believe the sustainable technology could eventually be incorporated into all kinds of buildings.

"Our goal is to successfully integrate algae into the built environment and use it to heat buildings, fertilise rooftop gardens and filter vehicle exhaust fumes," Sara Wilkinson, an association professor at the UTS School of the Built Environment, said in a news release. "There is demonstrated success of living algae bioreactors overseas, but nothing of such scale has been explored in Australia, until now."

Though the concept offers great promise, scientists say they face many challenges as they move to the actual building phase, including water running through a building's structure, and the potential for heat to kill the microorganisms.

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"One of the recurring questions we were asked throughout the study was, 'What would happen if a panel was accidentally or intentionally damaged?'" Wilkinson said. "So what we've recommended is specifying toughened glazing in certain areas."

The versatility of algae has the attention of a number of scientists looking for sustainable, eco-friendly materials.

"Algae can be used to make almost anything that society needs -- plastic, food, pharmaceuticals, paints, carpet and cosmetics, for starters," said Peter Ralph, from the UTS Centre for Industrialised Algae. "We think there could be up to 300,000 species of algae out there, and that we are only culturing about 100 of those."

For Ralph, the project offers a chance to solve energy and environmental problems in the building sector, but also an opportunity to educate the public.

"I want the public to accept the use of algae in everyday life," Ralph said. "I want people to see more of this microorganism for what it is -- a natural solution to the energy, food, economic and climate challenges facing our world today."

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