All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

BIQ – the amazing algae house

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The BIQ algae house in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg

The BIQ algae house in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg

Last year when I was in Hamburg I saw a completely different kind of solar house: one that uses algae.

It’s a simple concept: the south facing windows are filled with an algae culture between the panes. The algae grow with daylight, and the growth gets harvested at night, and gets fed to a digester, which turns the excess algae into methane. The methane is then processed through a fuel cell, which produces electricity and heat for the building. What about the CO2 that is released? You guessed it, it is recovered and fed to the algae culture, where it is absorbed during photosynthesis.

It’s a small appartment block (15 units), and it has been occupied since 2013. It’s quite relaxing to watch the bubbles float up through the green

If it weren't for the algae panels, this could be an appartment balcony anywhere

If it weren’t for the algae panels, this could be an appartment balcony anywhere

culture in the windows, but it is just a toy concept? It may be too early to tell, but one fact remains: the efficiency is high. Normal solar collectors can be thermal or photovoltaics, producing either heat or electricity, but not both. Thermal collectors have a typical efficiency of 50%, photovoltaic ones 10%, meaning that only that fraction of solar radiation is converted into heat and electricity. The BIQ solar cells manages to do both at once: capture heat from the sun, an produce electricity indirectly from the algae, with an overall efficiency of 48 %.

The complex also uses underground heat storage and is also connected to the grid in case there’s no sun for an extended period (hey, it’s northern Germany…). Even so, according to CoExist magazine, the prototype building is performing beyond expectations, says architect Jan Wurm.

“It’s producing more heat than we thought,” he says. “We optimized the performance after introducing a new set of pumps at the beginning of the year.”

Surveys show the people in the 15 apartments are also content, as well they might be. They have no heating bills and plenty to show off to visitors.

And oh, by the way, algae absorb CO2 for photosynthesis – so panels like these could be used as carbon sinks to clean emissions from fossil fuel plants. It’s always surprising where new technologies can lead.

You can read more details about this amazing building here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Or better yet, just watch this video below. There is something funny about how the inventors – architects, designers, engineers – describe their prototype in the second video. Just around the 2:00 minute mark, one of the inventors, very earnestly but without much visible excitement or enthusiasm, asserts that “this could be a very big step for the future”. I’m not sure why being a technology whiz seem to turn a German engineer into an affect-less Mr Spock type, but these guys crack me up. “Yes, this may save the future of humanity. I think it’s okay.”

Anyways, I can’t wait to go back one day and see how well it has withstood the test of time. When you’re standing in front of the building, it feels like you’re been travelling to the future.


Written by enviropaul

January 29, 2015 at 9:28 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] I’m planning to investigate, but in more detail, some of the things I already wrote about: the Algae House, Jenfelder Au, and other stuff, as well as a bunch more (the EnergieBerg, the energy bunker, […]

  2. Very interesting technology. But what kind of algae is used? Like specifically the name? As there’s many different kind of them and if one day other country from different part of the world wanted to have this microalgae bioreactor, they might want to know what type of algae is suitable to their country. I wish to get a reply soon!


    April 19, 2017 at 4:54 am

  3. […] and the cogen plant reduces its output.  The other generators integrated into the network are the BIQ house (otherwise known as the algae house, it is the only building in the world with a bioreactor façade), the Smart-is-Green building […]

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