In recent years, researchers and designers have shown that many things can be created from food waste. There are those who have managed to create fibers from citrus waste, those who have created a new material from dried fruit shells, or those who have produced a vegetable faux leather from pineapple peel that would otherwise have gone to waste. Another area of research, whose applications have been before our eyes for quite some time now, studies the use of food compost to produce sustainable, renewable, and cheap energy.
Through an oxygen-free fermentation process, certain bacteria -known as methanogens – are able to “digest” any type of food, be it sugar, starch, protein or fat, transforming organic matter into a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane: in a single day, these microorganisms can transform 1 kg of food waste into 1 kg of biogas.
In the midst of a full-scale energy crisis, it is hard not to think about the possible applications – including the most mundane and ordinary – of biogas generated from waste, which appears to be a potentially invaluable resource for our energetic future.
At the latest Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, designer Bart Keiren exhibited a prototype for the domestic application of this chemical transformation process. Biogas Project consists of “island-like” furniture – a playful overlap between a scientific workstation, a desk, and a pastel-colored self-standing cooktop – that houses a small bacterial digestion unit. Beneath the light wood shelf there are two cylinders, identical, connected by transparent tubes: on one side there is water, on the other a container of organic waste, invisible and hermetically sealed.
The installation is conceived as a living organism that, if “fed” with a cup of waste, produces a cup of tea in return, heating water with the gas produced by the compost. A circular system that allows us to experience the direct relationship that exists between human beings (and their needs) and the ecosystem they inhabit, including the waste they produce and the (micro) organisms that populate them.
Keiren’s project is not the first to embrace this biophilic shift in design and – starting with the kitchen space – the idea of a fruitful cooperative relationship between microbes and bacteria, to make the house function. Again at Dutch Design Week, in the 2011 edition, Cédric Bernard and Philips Design presented Microbial Home, a series of furniture designed with an innovative and sustainable approach: each action becomes an input for another, a cyclical ecosystem in which the home is a biological machine that filters and recycles what we consider waste.
With their (apparent) simplicity, Biogas Project and Microbial Home look at the environment not as a resource to be exploited but as a living ecosystem to collaborate with, thus transforming even a simple daily act such as cooking. These projects are also an invitation to think of ourselves as “connected” to other life forms, in this case to the microorganisms responsible for fermentation. What if our technological future was not artificial, but living?
That’s the question asked by four researchers, Anne-Sofie Belling, Bea Delgado Corrales, Romy Kaiser and Paula Nerlich, from the Hub for Biotechnology in the Build Environment at Newcastle University, authors of the Human-Bacteria Interfaces project, a concept based on living interfaces formed by microbial consortia capable of picking up environmental stimuli and relaying them back in the form of perceivable signals, to connect the human and bacterial worlds. Yet a speculative project that asks us to think and design our immediate future from an ecological perspective: “What relationships could we build with microbes, in our future homes?”
This ecological approach to design also calls for independence: is it possible to live self-sufficiently? Austrian designer Vera Wiedermann – for whom self-generated biogas is nothing new – has an answer: “If we prepare food ourself, abstain from consuming convenience food and eat a balanced diet, enough organic waste is produced to supply our cooking unit completely autarkic.” Among her projects is the creative direction of the Biomat Temporary Recycling-Restaurant which, during the Vienna Design Week in 2013, invited its diners for 10 days to bring their own organic waste in exchange for a dish on the menu. According to the idea of self-sufficient cooking, those who didn’t recycle paid for the meal.
For more information on the projects
Biogas project by Bart Keiren
Human-Bacteria Interfaces by Anne-Sofie Belling, Bea Delgado Corrales, Romy Kaiser and Paula Nerlich
Biomat Temporary Recycling-Restaurant by Vera Wiedermann, Sara Diadei, Vienna University of Technology