The BIQ house was recently completed in Hamburg, Germany. The glass panels are actually bioreactors that have recently been filled with microscopic algae, turning them a translucent green. © Colt International, Arup Deutschland, SSC GmbH
An innovative new apartment complex in Hamburg, Germany, employs bioreactor panels containing microscopic algae to shade the building and generate energy.
April 30, 2013—An innovative new apartment building in Hamburg, Germany, called BIQ House, takes “building green” to an unprecedented level by featuring a unique facade of large glass panels filled with water, nutrients, and microscopic algae. The panels will give the building not only a lustrous green facade but also a renewable source of energy.
The project began as an entry in the 2013 International Building Exhibition. The building was designed by the architecture firm SPLITTERWERK, of Graz, Austria. Engineering was provided by the Berlin office of Arup. When the design won the competition as an example of smart materials, an investor came forward to make the project a reality.
“We had to cross some borders of disciplines and regulations to get it done, which I think is exciting,” says Jan Wurm, Ph.D., the Europe research leader at Arup. “I think that is one of the most exciting parts of this project. We were able to look at it from so many different sides, bring so many skills together—within the building industry but also from outside the building industry—to get it done.”
The bioreactor panels are approximately 8 ft tall and 2 ft wide. At the core is an 18 mm thick cavity that contains the medium and the algae. Four layers of carefully selected glass encase the cavity, creating ideal conditions for the algae to grow and divide. The panels were developed through a collaboration between Arup; Strategic Science Consult (SSC) GmbH, a Hamburg, Germany-based bioreactor technology firm; and Colt International Ltd., U.K., a facade contractor based in Hampshire, United Kingdom.
“It is multiple layers of specially processed glass to maximize the solar gain and to minimize thermal loss,” Wurm says. “Both of these are important. We are producing heat and biomass.”
Bioreactors on each level are interconnected and work as a series,
and are controlled by a sophisticated central operating system.
© Colt International, Arup Deutschland, SSC GmbH
The panels are interconnected on each level and work as a series. They are connected to a centralized control facility that extracts energy via conventional heat exchangers and harvests any excess biomass. Nutritients and carbon are injected as needed to fuel photosynthesis.
“The process engineering of keeping the algae alive and happy during changing temperatures and climate situations is one part of the story,” Wurm says of the engineering challenges the team faced. “There is a biochemical process happening inside that is controlled by various sensors that tell us what is going on. There is a fully automated control system that is programmed to keep the process stable.”
Pressurized air is injected into each panel, creating turbulence in the cavity, which boosts photosynthesis. The air is injected at a velocity sufficient to create an action that washes the interior of the panels. What is more, small plastic beads have been incorporated into the medium to enhance the action.
The key challenge was incorporating the complex biochemical technology within an element that would meet all of the typical specifications of a facade component. The system was extensively tested to ensure that every element could manage the stresses. The team also developed a mechanical watertight seal for the panels that doesn’t rely on any chemical components to create a bond.
The building employs a high-performance envelope that minimizes heat losses and controls air exchanges to increase efficiency. A photovoltaic array on the roof provides energy to power the complex bioreactor control system.
The 8 ft tall by 2 ft wide panels not only had to function as
bioreactors, they also had to meet the normal requirements of any
structural facade system. © Colt International, Arup Deutschland,
The team has developed a two-year monitoring program that will not only collect data from the bioreactor system but also obtain feedback from the building’s occupants. “As the designers of the system, it’s very important for us to understand what people think,” Wurm says. “We will also monitor all of the energy output and the technical performance of the system to be able to give some reliable data at the end of this monitoring phase.”
Wurm says that although this is a new application of technology and there is much more exploration to be done, the project demonstrates the feasibility of incorporating bioreactors into a building to generate heat and biomass and provide dynamic shading.
“I think this technology offers a lot of different paths you can explore in different buildings and applications,” Wurm says. “I think we have the first step now to show that it is feasible. It does work. It looks great. And we do produce energy with it.”
Wurm has worked on the project from its inception, three years ago. Looking back over the challenges and accomplishments along the way, he is impressed by the team’s success in crossing so many different disciplinary borders.
“I think [the reason] why this project is so inspiring is because it dissolves borders between disciplines,” Wurm says. “It’s really a statement of a new technology where we show the potential of that technology—and we’ll hopefully get people inspired and interested to explore this potential.”