The project is a collaborative effort between Newcastle University and experts from the universities of the West of England (UWE Bristol), Trento, the Spanish National Research Council, LIQUIFER Systems Group and EXPLORA. The prototypical bricks are based on Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology originally developed at the University of West England. They harness the metabolic power of microbes, taken from an organic nutrient source such as pond slime, and converts it into fossil fuel-free electricity.
When we talked to Rachel Armstrong, project coordinator from Newcastle University, she made no false claims about the bricks’ current capabilities. While the eventual goal is to build entire structures, such as toilet blocks for people living in developing countries, with walls that can produce their own energy for lighting, they are currently capable of producing sufficient electricity to light an LED light.
Rachel said Living Bricks won’t be able to power a modern kitchen with all its power-hungry devices – refrigerators, stoves, blenders, coffee makers, and so on – but they may catalyze a shift in how we actually make kitchens. She says they are challenging the use of what she called “dead metabolisms” or fossil fuels.
“Biotechnology has given us new possibilities,” said Rachel. “We are shifting from dead metabolisms to new metabolisms, or microorganisms, that are much older than we are.” This new model could eliminate the harmful byproducts associated with deriving energy from dead metabolisms, such as greenhouse gases that are trapping so much heat on Earth, entire ecosystems are undergoing rapid new changes that could eventually make life on parts of the planet downright unlivable.
Recently unveiled in Venice for the 2016 Biennale, the current iteration of Living Bricks is eight months into development. Their creators are experimenting with various materials to optimize both aesthetics and power production, the results of which exploration will be displayed at the 2017 Estonia Biennale. Rachel said if they are able to source sufficient funds to have an on-site installation team, they would love to have a whole wall of energy-generating bricks in time for an Estonian debut.