It is green, it is slimy, and it produces a staggering 70% of oxygen in the atmosphere.
Algae may not be the most glamorous of plants, but it uses photosynthesis to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, which makes it an ideal candidate material for purifying air. Now, one designer thinks it could be used to make pollution-fighting street furniture.
The Living Bench is an inflatable structure that uses a species called hair algae (yes, it looks like hair, but green) to suck up pollution and purify the air around it. It was designed by architect and biodesigner Bob Hendrikx, and is part of the Voorlopers exhibition, currently on display in the Netherlands at Soestdijk Palace (the former official residence of the Dutch Royal Family, now open to the public).
Made of bio-based plastic, the Living Bench holds 120 liters (or, more than 31 gallons) of algae water collected from several ponds in the Netherlands (including Hendrikx’s parents’ backyard pond), split across 10 interconnected pouches. People can sit and bounce on it to get more air flowing through the structure, or it can generate its own airflow, thanks to a solar pump connected to tiny tubes inside the structure.
A fun experiment with serious potential, the Living Bench reflects algae’s growing popularity among architects and designers, from micro-algae cement that captures CO2 to pop-up pavilions that grow algae as a source of food. For Hendrikx, whose previous inventions include a coffin made of mycelium from mushrooms, it started with an ambition to “collaborate” with nature and build with living materials. “In the forest, everything is an ecosystem, [but] humans, they want to build stuff, so they kill an organism and then work with it,” he says. “Let’s switch that up.”
Given that living materials need food, the team had to “feed” the inflatable twice a month, mostly with phosphates. For now, the algae are confined to pouches on the surface of the inflatable, but if Hendrikx finds a way to design bigger pouches that won’t weigh down the structure too much, he thinks a fully bloomed chair, packed to the gills with live algae, could be possible in a matter of weeks.
At this stage, it remains unclear exactly how much air something like this can purify, but Hendrikx alludes to research that claims 500 liters (132 gallons) of algae solution could filter the equivalent of about 200 liters (53 gallons) of polluted air per minute, depending on the algae species, the temperature, and the amount of airflow. Such algae seating might not be very useful in the verdant gardens of a countryside palace, but put it in Times Square, and it may just come in handy.