Algae Fountain

This video demonstrates the development and potential use of the fountain, as well as show the final result.

Motivation and goals

In reflecting on my motivations for creating a fountain, I went back through my documentation this semester and found a question from a long time ago that I thought encapsulated my thread of thinking the past few weeks: Can I create a visual and gustatory experience using algae that upends people’s perceptions about their rate of consumption and gives them a visceral understanding of their body in relation to the food systems that sustain human life? Some major inspirations for this were Rebecca Bray & Britta Riley’s DrinkPeeDrinkPeeDrinkPee and Stefani Bardin’s M2A™:The Fantastic Voyage.

I don’t think I succeeded in creating something that did this, but I do think it touched on my goals. I also think this phrasing got away (usefully) from the many details of nutrient pollution and recycling and articulated something that I could affect, even if I subsequently lost site of this asking smaller, related questions and getting things to work. So, I presented the fountain as a way I could address this question, and a way to built knowledge for designing interventions using algae in the future.

Process

I chose to continue working with algae since I learned so much growing it and it has such varied species, potential, and uses. I had chlorella and spirulina that could both be used to try out this fountain idea. There were some practical questions that needed proof of concept:

  • Would it be too much of a mess?
  • Would the way I imagined the grow light working hurt people’s eyes to look at when the algae were at low biomass? How could I mitigate this?
  • Would the pump work with material besides water running through it?
  • Would the algae be hurt by being pushed through a pump? Chlorella and spirulina both do need some agitation but that doesn’t preclude this potential problem.

Some other design considerations:

  • How worried should I be/how could I address the potential for contamination?
  • How should this thing look? What should be the final form? And if I’m trying to use as much recycled material as possible, how lenient can I be?

My final fountain was made with:

  • A deconstructed grow light that I bought, took apart, and re-soldered to be used more easily
  • A small water pump
  • Vinyl tubing
  • Acrylic scrap & recycled acrylic from ITP’s shop dumpster
  • Scrap wood from ITP’s shop dumpster
  • A found/borrowed bowl: I was thinking of using recycled acrylic for this as well but this proved unfeasible (at least in the time I had)–this bowl was about the shape I was looking for

Some useful questions from classmates & reviewers: 

I got some positive feedback about it being beautiful and meditative. Marina thought the crazy straw (which serves the double-function of replicating the shape of spirulina at the microscopic level) successfully suggested drinking, so I did at least one thing right. I also got a several helpful suggestions, comments, and questions:

  • Is this a model towards the future, a home scaled solution to address nutrient pollution or a critique on the state of our water?
  • Should explain terms like bioreactor and biomass for laypeople
  • Could develop the stories/drama around cyanobacteria
  • Algae grosses people out unless they’re into superfoods
  • Should function and in it’s function also communicate this is about growing algae and consumption
  • Could be educational
  • Is the idea that we should drink out of this? One person said the openness of the fountain would make them hesitant to drink it
  • How do I imagine people would actually drink out of it? Could the ‘crazy straw’ also be functional?
  • Could incorporate “aesthetics of contamination”
  • If not drinking, then fertilizer? What other functions? Use as fertilizer may lessen the limitations around contamination
  • Do I imagine this being sold, or releasing instructions for DIY-ers?

References

References have been updated.

Future

Throughout the semester I was also experimenting with microscopy. I moved way from this from the final but I still would like to do a project creating microscopic worlds using tools like unity or processing. I would still like to find a way to create an inexpensive way to capture automated microscopic video. I made a simple site to click through my daily practice images.

Since I’ve created a sort of bioreactor that works at a small scale, I think it would be interesting to continue adding useful functionality that would allow people to actually grow algae this way. Some steps to consider in making this a viable sort of product:

  • A way to monitor nutrient availability would be useful–how do you know when to add medium, urine, water, etc, to keep your algae growing?
  • There should be a way to monitor growth/biomass so that people know when their algae are ready for harvest.
  • I should develop an easy way to periodically harvest the algae. I found some research suggesting I could explore solutions that use: coffee filters, a centrifuge, or altering the pH of the algae medium.

Some steps for developing this project and determining feasibility:

  • Figure out how to test for contaminants during algae growth
  • Figure out whether there’s a way to filter the algae such that the water resulting from the process is drinkable

To further develop the idea, Marina suggested more rigorous experimental methods to try and also pointed me to the Fungi Mutarium and Dezeen.

I don’t know where this last note fits, but someone recently pointed me to Water Tower by Rachel Whiteread, which I thought was another interesting way to rethink water and resources in a city.

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