October 10, 2009

Visiting instructor's class utilizes algae as biofuel

Architecture students often design with concrete, steel and wood in mind. Now they've added algae to their materials list.

The photosynthetic organisms seem more fitting as congealed-like soup atop static waters than woven into the built environment. Yet Michael Ezban, visiting instructor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, has introduced a course called "Algae Armatures," which invites students to utilize algae as a design element.

While algae undoubtedly provide a unique aesthetic, their purpose isn't strictly visual. Algae are forerunners in the development of biofuels, which is energy retrieved from renewable biological materials. Algae are essentially squeezed for their oils, which are then refined into a usable form to power, among other things, cars.

"The idea with (this class)," Ezban said, "is how do you couple biofuel production with existing infrastructure and existing city fabrics?"

Several disciplines comprise "Algae Armatures." Students from architecture, landscape architecture and industrial design occupy the eight-person class. Mark Kerscher, a senior industrial design major, said he signed up to diversify his portfolio as much as possible with graduation approaching.

"I select classes based on what would help me get a job," Kerscher said, "and right now sustainability is pretty big."

Ezban's interest in algae has subtle origins in his own student portfolio.

In academia, Ezban said he explored a creative intersection between agriculture and architecture. While a graduate student at the University of Michigan, his thesis project focused on "fidal remediation," which is a way to clean a post-industrial site; plants can be used to extract toxins from contaminated soil. Ezban sought how the technique behind such a cultivation practice could then inform design.

"Algae is a crop," Ezban explained, "and to me, it's just farming in a kind of different form."

The algae farmer might have the most lax duties of them all. Unlike other biofuel crops such as soybeans and corn, algae are hydroponic, meaning they don't require soil. The necessary water for algae need not be potable either because recycled "gray water" from devices like showers and washing machines can support their early growth.

Since algae are liberated from the restraints of arable land, they become versatile as architectural components that can be grafted into current contexts. The two design projects in "Algae Armatures" touch on the possibilities.

For the first assignment, Ezban placed students into pairs and presented the duos different sites: an urban park, a building facade, a highway and a parking lot.

"What they were asked to do," Ezban said, "was spend time brainstorming about the spatial ramifications of biofuel production in those areas."

The parking lot team, for example, conceptualized an algae canopy that would float above the pavement. As a result, the algae would reduce the heat produced by the blacktop and collect rainwater, preventing excess sewer drainage. Further, algae readily absorb great amounts of carbon dioxide and also devour a portion of vehicle emissions.

"By layering the idea of what a parking lot can be," Ezban said, "we're turning it from this neutral - or even, I would say, detrimental - urban situation, into an energy-producing zone."

The other student teams suggested frameworks like scaffolding and screens to infuse algae into their sites.

The final, longer project is now underway. The prompt asks students to create an algae armature, or a framework that suspends or supports the algae, that ties into the Virginia Tech Power Plant. They'll spend time analyzing the facility from its physical energy processes to the surrounding pedestrian traffic. The design product intends to curb the power plant's carbon dioxide waste stream while shaping the visual experience of passersby.

And it's not implausible that "Algae Armatures" could yield physical tests of its designs.

"We have a research facility that can easily demonstrate this," said Jack Davis, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Davis said the faculty looks forward to observing the course's output. A positive reception could perhaps attract grant money to help manifest student ideas.

Despite the promise of algae, Ezban stressed that there are drawbacks. Notably, the carbon dioxide algae trap still resides in their oil extracts. When it's burned, the gas will ultimately make its way into the atmosphere. Ezban said the goal of using algae is to make waste productive for as long as possible.

"I don't want to hold algae production up as like this silver bullet to all of our energy problems," Ezban said.

The solution is complex, he said, and will require the consensus of many fields of study. The pond only supplies potential.

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