A bioreactor is the name of a piece of apparatus in which biological processes are carried out, often on an industrial scale. What goes into and comes out of the bioreactor can be controlled and closely monitored. The conversion of input substances to output substances is mediated by microbes. Bioreactors lend themselves to processing undesirable materials like waste water or polluted substances into cleaner, more environmentally friendly versions. In addition, continuous microbial activity inside the bioreactor may produce heat that can be exploited as an energy source.

The notion of bacteria converting waste into more environmentally friendly material and, in the process, creating energy is not new. At this year’s (2016) Glastonbury music festival in the UK, for example, microbial fuel cells were used to power lights in a special block of urinals.

What are Bioreactor Bricks?

Researchers are currently working on a multimillion pound international project to develop bioreactors that act as bioreactor bricks – building blocks for construction projects. As such they are used, like bricks or blocks, to construct a building but they are also functioning bioreactors capable of generating heat from the microbial processing of human and household waste that enters the bricks. The heat is then converted to electricity as a source of energy for the building itself.

Lab scale models of bioreactor bricks are promising, but achieving a technical objective in a laboratory and making a large-scale, functioning, reliable, economically viable, working version is considerably more challenging. If, for example, the cost to produce and install building block bioreactors exceeds cost savings, then it is difficult to see investment forthcoming in large scale production. However, the application of bioreactor technology to the construction industry could take a significant step towards novel and renewable ways to provide energy and dispose of waste – two things that are becoming increasingly problematic in our overcrowded world.