Photosynthetic algae are very possibly the companion organism of the future. Because they eat our waste CO2 and produce energy, they are considered a leading potential source of biofuels. Spirulina algae, in particular, with its high protein and nutrient density, has gained popularity as a "superfood." But algae doesn't do PR, and there's no appeal in its usual appearance, which is a dark green slurry.
However, two recent Carnegie Mellon graduates, Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier, are ready to help it shine in an exhibit called Living Things, which brings the microorganisms into a sphere they've yet to visit much: the human home. The intricate exhibit at the Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh sends algae through more than half a mile of piping into glass vessels filled with alkaline water into various areas of a hypothetical home.
High functioning photobioreactors provide heat, light, agitation, air supply, nutrient and waste control to the living algae inside, allowing them to keep growing.
"It keeps the biomass from coating the interior surfaces of the vessels and also provides each little photosynthetic organism varying access to light, which simulates the natural environment of a lake or ocean where currents or waves move algae closer or further away from the surface and therefore sunlight," explains Douenias. The water medium continuously moves, reminding us that there's life inside in the absence of the "superstructure" that most plants have.
The exhibit is arranged into three "vignettes" of life amid the algae – a dining room, a living room and a concealed control center. In the living room, the orblike vessels act as reading companions, ceiling fixtures and tabletop orbs. At the control center, 3D-printed knobs that resemble mushrooms actuate 18 valves that allow the spirulina to be harvested when the culture becomes dense enough and cycles fresh water into each vessel.
And best of all, in the kitchen, spirulina will be integrated into various drinks and dishes by culinary experts and will be served at various events throughout the exhibition. Before embarking on this project, Douenias was engaged in a startup involved in creating food waste energy and nutrient recovery system for restaurants; perhaps some of his expertise in this area will fit right in.
Living Things is now installed at the Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until March 27, 2016.