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.


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 have been updated.


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.

Growing algae in diluted urine & Final project

Our Spirulina has really proliferated which presents a new problem: how to harvest it? So I’ve been figuring out how much and how best to extract the biomass. Chlorella seems much more difficult to harvest.

Successful growth with blue-green algae

I continued to research microalgae growth with urine (citations updated) and fertilized a batch of algae with urine. Spirulina grows in a more basic medium, and will die if too much urine is introduced, so I added 8.5mL to about 850mL of Spirulina medium for a 1:100 ratio. I added 10mL to the Chlorella medium for about a 1:50 ratio. I also found some evidence that Chorella can grow in a solution of urine and water, so I’m trying this as well at about a 1:28 ratio.

additional mason jars fertilized with urine

Final Form

I’ve been struggling to figure what I will build for the final next week. I loved the Drink.Pee.Drink.Pee.Drink.Pee installation and DIY kit Bray & Riley assembled. They created struvite, a recycling phosphate fertilizer I came across when I first started research phosphorus pollution, by adding magnesium chloride to the pee. The reaction separates the solution into struvite and water almost instantly. I wonder if the same effect can be achieved by using algae (it would certainly take longer)?

I realized I could actually produce a urine-based algae-growing solution presented in a way similar to the Algohol idea I had at the beginning of the semester (like as a champagne-algae fountain? Or just a fancy bottle?). I bought some materials to experiment with–I wanted to create a fountain where instead of drinking you could observe the algae with a stereoscope microscope, but I quickly realized making a stereoscope microscope, or even just a stereoscope or a microscope within the design of the fountain quickly complicated things. Since there’s only a week left in class, I won’t try to figure this out unless there’s time.

If the fountain also functioned to grow the algae, it would need to incorporate a grow light–which presents it’s own problems. It shouldn’t be directly next to the algae, and I’m pretty sure it would be bad for people’s eyes. How could they view it safely, by say, turning on an LED closer to the top of the device, while avoiding any dangerous consequences of looking at a grow light?

I’m concerned also with the materials to be used in a project like this. Maybe I can create an algae fountain from recycled materials from the floor? While I like this a lot, I don’t know if this weakens the cohesiveness of the concept. Maybe the ideas are connected in that we’re creating new things to consume from our waste?

One idea is to recycling the acrylic chunks that accumulate at ITP this time of year to build parts of the fountain, although I think I would need to dissolve them in acetone, which isn’t the best. People do this to create acrylic glues so I don’t see why I couldn’t form it into something. Or perhaps use it to create waterproof cardboard.

A bit of a joke would be:

Microvideo & project progress


I’ve been experimenting with creating a microscope that allows me to easily take video.

The nice thing about using a piCam is I know it’s easily programmable. Although for my purposes the same functionality might be available for a cheap usb webcam.

I’ve been researching tools others have used to do similar things, and found a group at Betzig Lab that has created a microscope that does high speed imaging using bessel beam planes. Someone else created foldscope, a cheap paper microscope. I also discovered this microscopic film festival.

Generative & algorithmic art

I was very inspired by Markos Kay’s quantum fluctuations and other related work and searched for which software he might have used to create it. He hasn’t mentioned this in any of his interviews, so I tweeted at him, but he didn’t respond.

It got me thinking about whether I should find a way to generate the phenomena I’m interested in capturing with algae in some other way–like with Processing or other software, like Unity. I took a look through Shiffman’s Nature of Code examples and found a link to this great book: The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants.


My microgreens have grown, started to dry and die, and are now coming forth with new life. It’s been very interesting to watch!

Our algae are also growing–the chlorella and spirulina are doing great, while the nori doesn’t seem to be. We’re not sure why.

Final project concept progress

I’ve been revisiting Donella Meadows to think about how to steer my project towards something impactful.

I still really like the idea of creating a sort of stereoscope where there’s a sense of being immersed in an environment at a different scale.

Another perhaps more outrageous idea is to grow the chlorella or spirulina (perhaps chlorella since it’s a bit easier) in a higher nutrient medium, resembling something more like the runoff from industrial farms. I think it would be interesting to present this in the form of a water fountain, to make the association back to what we consume to sustain us. I wondered if people had perhaps made algae fountains before, and of course they have.

What if the nutrient solution was urine?

Final project progress update

Revisiting micro green composites

Something unexpected this week was realizing my micro greens are dying. I was thinking a lot about apoptosis, and how death is necessary for a healthy ecosystem, to allow other living things to thrive. I recreated some of the composites I made when my micro greens were growing now that they are shriveling, drying, changing color, and dying. Some of the colors were really striking.

Micro green bin on day 32:

@ 10x magnification

Each type of micro green planted:

@ 7.5-50x magnification

Algae Cultures


These photos made me wonder if it would be interesting to include as part of my project a color study of the dominant species of the world now and what it might be once other species dominate the planet. Or maybe even a color study of the life and death of particular organisms.

I’m continuing research on microscopy and time-lapse microscopic photography, and have ordered a few more items to start experimenting with (including a raspberry pi camera and magnifying beads).

Algae growing set up

We set up mason jars to being growing spirulina, porphyra, and chlorella!

Final concept development

Played with some initial logo ideas: somehow ended up with stuff that looked like a street light or mastercard logo. I liked the idea of showing a cycle of life and death but couldn’t pull out the elemental pieces.

Can immersing ourselves in an environment of small, growing, parts of the larger ecosystem help us understand our own consumption and the work the earth does to replenish itself?

Can juxtaposition between living and dying help us think about our role in the larger biosphere? How can observing the mechanisms by which other living things recycle everything in their environment and are ultimately absorbed back into it help us reflect on the waste we produce throughout our lives?

How can speculative design problems arising from replicating our environment on other planets help us appreciate the earth’s services and help us address problems that have already arisen trying to maintain our habitats on earth?

Why focus on algae? I was interested in algae in the first place as a potential way to bio-remediate phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. Nutrient pollution was an interesting problem to address since it sits at the intersection of food security, resource depletion, human population growth, and pollution. Thinking about this made me reframe the idea of ‘limits to growth’ less abstractly as limits to HUMAN growth and societal development.

Algae grows rapidly & has a number of environmental benefits: it can be used as biofuel, food, to produce oxygen, to remediate polluted environments, including as a chelating agent, even to terraform mars. There is also so much work being done around cultivating it at different scales. I wonder if we can better address the ecological problems at hand by imagining a world where we’re hyper-reliant on algae? Or maybe many solutions really do lie in further algae-focused biodesign?

Idea #1: VR stereoscope that leverages scale

Try a microscopic VR stereoscope-esque experience that includes increasing levels of magnification and/or some kind of telling comparison. For in-class testing, I’m going to present using google cardboard:

I created additional 360 photos to juxtapose those I took when the plants were still growing.

Idea #2: Yet Another Way of experiencing microscopic worlds

Try using projection, pepper’s ghost, hologram to display a magnification or scientific information in a new way. Perhaps you insert a slide to start, and play with a physical controller to manipulate information, comparisons to other things, the magnification settings.

Algae growth progress: bioreactor plans

Maintaining a culture

This week we learned a lot about maintaining algae cultures in their appropriate medium (we are maintaining a google doc to collaborate and maintain these and other resources).

We had a number of practical questions about building a bioreactor to grow our algae, and about whether there were real or just semantic differences between the terms we were seeing across documentation. We reached out to Lauren again who was able to give clarification around terms, recommendations for lighting, and tubing. Our plan is to inoculate our medium on Thursday!

What to get (updated)

  1. Some kind of container, sterilized: we decided on mason jars (bought)
  2. Nutrient solution/ medium for chlorella, nori, and spirulina (bought)
  3. Small aquarium heater (bought)
  4. Thermometer(s) (bought)
  5. pH strips (bought)
  6. Light source: I thought we could use flourescents but I will also check Lauren’s suggestions
  7. System for aeration: sterilized tubing and t-valves connected to an air pump (borrowed/bought)
  8. Pipettes and slides (which I imagine we also need to sterilize) (bought)
  9. System for camera, thermometer, pH monitoring (more below)

Setting up a monitoring camera

We want to be able to monitor the temperature, growth, and pH of our algae remotely. Monitoring each of our algae solutions with pH and temperature sensors seemed prohibitively expensive, so I thought, why not set up a camera?

Some options:

  • An IP camera (challenges: could not find at the ER; might need to buy)
  • An android phone set up to work like an IP camera (challenges: android in the ER could not be updated to have the appropriate software downloaded)
  • GoPro live stream with ffmpeg & ffplay (challenges: was finally was able to download ffplay but realized this solution probably requires a computer, which I wanted to avoid)
  • Raspberry pi camera (challenges: I haven’t yet tried this but would like to; I need to order a camera!)

Microscopic imaging tools 

This tadpole egg dividing!

Eric had recommended phone adapters that allow you to connect a smart phone to a microscope. I chose one from Thingiverse that seemed to require minimal assembly for iPhone 6. We have Ultimaker 2+ 3D printers at ITP and the steps including required software & for setting up your file are available through their Quickstart Guide. I downloaded Cura, exported the file, and tried printing…but this didn’t work for some reason. I just got a wad of plastic.

I found other instructions for building a powerful microscope using a glass bead and a small 3D-printed (maybe with better luck this time) piece. The design was developed with smartphone portability and rapid imaging in mind.

Limits to growth (connections, literature)

Marine algae cultures

This warning system for toxic algal blooms measures rapid decline in oxygen levels.

Often used geo-engineering methods are additions of aluminum salts or modified clays into the lake to lock excess phosphorus stored in the sediments.

However, results have not always been good. Often lake managers have used geo-engineering uncritically in lakes where the external loading of phosphorous was not reduced enough or they have applied too low dosage because of economy, says Sara Egemose, department of biology, University of Southern Denmark.

On algae:

“Although algal biomass contains less than 1% P, it is often one of the most important growth- limiting factors in algal biotechnology.”

Inorganic Algal Nutrition, Chapter 8

Final Project development

In class we did and XY Grid exercise to help us think through our final project ideas. Utsav and Lindsay asked me helpful questions and gave some great suggestions. I included project ideas that I had earlier in the semester that didn’t have to do with algae, to see if I could pull out interesting components and evaluate them against each other.

Some big decision points are:

  • Do I want to create an intervention to address nutrient pollution on an infrastructure scale (for a city, for a home)? I would like to be don’t find this feasible.
  • Do I want to create an app or visualization that helps people understand their impact on the earth’s ecological systems? Yes, but then what?
  • Do I want to make food? Yes, but this is hard.
  • If I create something visual, do I appeal to the beautiful aspects or the ugly aspects? And do I want people to be disgusted? Amused? Hungry?
  • On these last two, Utsav and Lindsay pointed out that demonstrating a ‘failure’ could also be interesting.
  • And I have to include: who is my audience?

Project proposal progress & 360 images

Our algae cultures arrived!

The instructions indicated that the tubes should be slightly unscrewed to allow gas exchange, that they should be kept in light but not direct sunlight, and at room temperature.

I sort of panicked but from what I’ve read, it seems like cultures like this are somewhat resilient. The detailed advice online corroborates the notes includes in the package, which made me feel better. I may have linked to this article on growing spirulina before, but I keep referring back to it. There’s less but some instructions on how to grow these less-often home-grown varieties. Getting started is definitely overwhelming, which makes me wonder how hard it would be to create an easier way to farm algae at home. I came across this kickstarter video from a while back but it didn’t seem to address my main concern (contamination), still didn’t look very easy, and didn’t look at all appetizing.

To go forward it sounds like we’ll need (at least):

  1. Some kind of container: I got a fish tank for free but I’m not actually sure this will end up working
  2. Dechlorinated, filtered water
  3. Fertilizer
  4. Heater (spirulina, at least, grows at 80-90 degree Fahrenheit)
  5. Thermometer
  6. Something to maintain the alkalinity of the solution (again, for spirulina, pH should be 10.5)
  7. pH sensor
  8. Light source: I saw suggested that traditional grow lights probably won’t work that well but I wonder if we could just use sunlight
  9. An air pump to move the water around, slowly

It seems like we should be regularly checking the specimens with a microscope as well.

More imaging experiments

Over spring break I travelled to Yosemite which was amazing but limited my ability to photograph my microgreens. However, in northern California there are very big trees, and I wondered if their massiveness might be captured with a 360 photo that could be experienced in VR. Photographing small plants that grow in as little as 10 days versus photographing sequoias that grow over thousands of years made me consider the lifecyles of large and small things on earth. Limits to growth when it comes to individual species are quite different. Of course when I was researching limits to growth, limits to human growth was implicit!

In my opinion 360 is really the most fun when you get to play with scale, which allows a perspective from an otherwise unknowable angle. So, after I got back, I put the theta in my microgreen bin also.

From California:

From my microgreen bin:

These are a lot of fun on a phone!

Intelligence, systems, & perspective

Northern California is beautiful, and the immensity of the landscape gives the impression that a tiny human couldn’t possibly have an affect on such an awesome earth. But at the same time, the California drought is affecting sequoias, and many are dying. Scientists were surprised to find the seedlings seem to be getting enough water while the monarchs suffer. I was reminded of the radiolab episode with Suzanne Simard and it just makes sense that decisions are being made by the trees. I thought about the intelligence of networks of trees, grandparents role in human evolution, and the probable wisdom of very old trees.

I happened to read Yuval Harari’s thoughts on biotechnology and AI in transforming the human race to something indistinguishable from us today. While Harari takes a more agnostic view on technology, this made me think of Zizek in Examined Life: we are ecological engineers engineering ourselves, potentially out of existence. Is the individual disintegrating? Did the individual ever exist or are we all sums of interdependent systems that form a whole: the human race as a whole, perhaps in the same way we might conceptualize the intelligence of a forest as whole, one consciousness? Is it the whole the biosphere?

Do we need rapid technological advancement to solve the problems at hand; or, do we need to shift to a more conservative approach in order to preserve (for lack of more exact language) an old wilderness or way of life?

New stuff:

  • The Suess effect: a change in the ratio of the atmospheric concentrations of heavy isotopes of carbon (13C and 14C) by the admixture of large amounts of fossil-fuel derived CO2, which is depleted in 13CO2 and contains no 14CO2
  • Blue carbon is the carbon captured by the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems. The carbon captured by living organisms in oceans is stored in the form of biomass and sediments from mangroves, salt marshes, seagrasses and potentially algae. Seagrasses, I learned, are also detrimentally affected by eutrophication.
  • The bessemer process: a steel-making process, now largely superseded, in which carbon, silicon, and other impurities are removed from molten pig iron by oxidation in a blast of air in a special tilting retort (featured in the Studio Swine Can City video)

[Preliminary] Proposal

Can I create a visual and gustatory experience using algae that upends people’s perceptions about their rate of consumption in relation to the growth & death of other living things, and gives them a visceral understanding of their body in relation to the food systems that sustain human life?

Macrophotography & algae updates

Daily practice: macrophotography

The daily task I chose was macrophotography which utilizes the amplification strategy, very literally. I did my best photographing my growing plants with a magnifying lens that was apparently left on the junk shelf. I don’t even know if I’m calling this the right thing because I know so little about photography… lol.

As time progressed I thought about the exponential growth which is central to humans’ relationships with earth’s resources, spelled out in Limits to Growth and elsewhere, and the relatively fast (but still so slow) growth of plants that (on the whole) sustain us.

This was also so, so fun. I researched a bit more about photography with microscopes. On day 6, so a bit late, I met with Eric Rosenthal to learn more about this. He was so helpful and the tools we introduced me to were so illuminating! He pointed me to software for focus layering, which seems very important if I’m to continue with photographing small and/or microscopic things. The depth of field on these lenses is just so limited. He also showed me I could 3D print a device to hook my iPhone to a microscope (as opposed to using more complicated equipment) to take more-microscopic photos this way.

I made these composites of each day.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

This week I also got to see Trevor Paglen and Kate Crawford speak on AI and the increased concentration of capital & computing power in just a few entities (perhaps another exponential trend?). A photographer, Paglen noted the power imaging has in giving things and people power. It made me wonder how creating images of things we might not ordinarily see, or consider small or irrelevant, changes value and power dynamics.

A quote from my Reading and Writing Electronic Text reading also stood out, as a sort of meta-commentary (re: jazz and poetry): “The improviser can’t edit but must fall back on the most basic standard of all: is this interesting to me, right now?”

Other imaging experiments

From Eric’s advice, I created the following images from one small micro green (that I picked and then ate!!!! I felt a little bad) using the focus layering technique. What’s cool about Helicon is you can also create 3D renderings, which I tried. None were very effective since the leaf, stem, and root are all pretty flat. The root worked the best.

I also tried taking photos of plants through a small microscope Eric lent me that magnifies 60-120x and just my iPhone.

These reminded me of moons or like a tiny earth.


Finally a good explanation of different types of algae, and the associated confusion:

The internal cell structure of algae varies greatly. Microalgae lack complex multicellular structures that are found in seaweeds. The cyanobacteria or blue-green algae have a prokaryotic cell structure and closely resemble bacteria. Eukaryotic algal cells have a nucleus and usually one or more chloroplasts; they also have mitochondria, Golgi bodies, endoplasmic reticulum, and other typical eukaryotic organelles. Despite the difficulty in presenting a clear definition for algae, thousands of books, scores of scientific journals, and numerous internet websites are dedicated solely to compiling our knowledge of algae”

By a string of connections I was put in touch with Lauren, who is doing research on algae biofuels. She directed me to the Algae Handbook (e-book) (quoted above), which thankfully is available online from the NYU library, and UTEX , UT Austin’s Algae culture collection. I asked about the potential of algae to mitigate phosphorus and nitrogen runoff, and she thought one easy use of algae was to clean up waste water from hydroponics facilities. When it comes to algae blooms as a result of of other runoff, she pointed to the difficulty, expense, and risks of introducing new organisms into an open environment. She shared a bit about her own and other’s ongoing research. She also gave very useful direction for beginning to grow algae on the ITP floor, and so much more information to think about and sift through.

This last piece was incredibly timely, since I just started working with Sara, a student in Stefani’s BioDesigning the Future of Food class who is also interested in growing algae. Using some of the research materials Lauren sent along, we will reconvene to order algae strains before spring break, and begin our process after we get back.

I think it might be very interesting to do similar macrophotography while growing algae!! And perhaps underwater?


Understanding algae

My inquiries landed me on algae-based solution, but I and Marina (who rightly pointed this out after my presentation)  wondered “what are the differences between algae and micro algae, run-off algae species and the ones we eat in smoothies?” There are thousands of kinds of algae, and cyanobacteria, green-blue, and red algae are all referred to as algae.


I learned many seaweeds are also algae, including kelp, which is “formed by brown macroalgae of the order Laminariales” [wikipedia] Stefani also pointed me to this New Yorker article on the many, varied benefits of kelp.

And kelp forests are beautiful! I had no idea this was at the center of the kelp broth I love in vegetarian ramens. I’m working on sorting out these varied subcategories of algae and connecting to people that might help.

Growing things @ITP

The BioDesigning the Future of Food class at ITP has created space for growing microgreens on the floor. I thought since my line of inquiry led me to examining our food system, it made sense to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the methods they’re using to grow food on the floor. I talked to Stefani and got a bin! There were two options for lights: blue-red LEDs and UV light. It was interesting to see the spectrum of light being used compared with other science I’ve seen about optimum lighting for plants.

Documentation from the LED Panel box

My final set up includes 4 kinds of microgreens split between two sides of the bin. My hope is to develop an experiment where one side receives some treatment and the other side is the control.

I also want to grow algae which Stefani seems fine with, although I need to do more research. I’ve found a few sites with basic instructions and others that provide more robust support. I wonder what kind of opportunities there may be for combining the two?

Limits to growth: other directions and connections

While exciting, it seems like growing food and algae on the floor is only as important as the connection back to our limits to growth, and food’s central role in many of the systems that push on earth’s planetary boundaries.

  • The role of capitalism/invisible hand/neoliberal world order
  • Technological advancement & theoretically limitless growth
  • Marina recommended the book Inventing the future. Reading the first chapter, I thought it was interesting to think of the Rolling Jubilee as “crisis response,” which in a way also goes back to discussions we had at the beginning of class regarding adaptation to mitigation.
  • She also pushed me to think of metaphors related to algae (oxygen use, giving and suffocating life). Maybe I can use my experiments on the floor to look at death?
  • Another art strategy she suggested was parafiction (which I love). Many stories could be told about the future. I wonder about the possibility of AR/VR to overlay worlds and realities.
  • I loved Mary Mattingly’s manifesto. The non-violent economic and ecological orders really resonate. How to we compel ourselves and others to use our capital in here in high-income countries to consume responsibly, or within our means. The momentum feels overwhelming.

Limits to Growth Proposal: Algae Brewer


I met with NYU professor David Kanter last week and had a very helpful discussion. His work is focused on the nitrogen cycle, but nitrogen and phosphorus have a close relationship given their role as fertilizers. One important difference is nitrogen is renewable and phosphorus is not. He pointed me to the Planetary Boundaries update supplementary materials to learn more about how the boundaries are defined–but apparently for nitrogen they were set somewhat arbitrarily initially and have since been tested and adjusted.

He suggested a number of areas where change or improvement could reduce nutrient pollution and carbon emissions. I included these in my final presentation, but they are broadly split between consumer behavior changes and technological advances in farming. We discussed the benefits of individual changes versus focuses on larger systemic change, but really it comes down to: individual change (vegetarianism, for example) is important but not sufficient.

It was good for me to return back to the original idea of limits to growth (30-year update) to link the research I’d done about phosphorus back to the big picture–how we’re unsustainably exhausting many planetary boundaries.

I heard back from another expert and sent along some questions, but haven’t yet heard back. In the meantime, I’ve come across many other algae projects, articles, and companies [and their sustainability assessments]. I am meeting with Stefani Bardin this week to discuss ways I can experiment with algae to test out my project idea.

My article citations have also been updated.

Some useful & some abandoned sketches

Waste systems 

While my project proposal went in a different direction, I’ve generally been very curious about how we might better capture and recycle waste. I came across a project where someone went to great lengths to install a waste recycling system in their home: by adding many small red worms to a biosolids tank they were able to produce soil. I wonder if something like this could be more easily installed in homes with septic tanks? There were also several projects out of Maker Faire Africa a few years ago that focused on human waste repurposing.

One contact that Kanter suggsted was Will Brownlie at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in England. I haven’t yet contacted him but his thesis work was on “Assessing the role of domestic phosphorus emissions in the human phosphorus footprint” so he would likely be a useful expert if I continue to work in this direction.

I also learned that NYC has a biosolids management program.

Proposal & Ad


This week I learned about the green revolution, which increased world-wide food production and fed masses of people, but resulted in inefficiencies to the extent that more energy is being used to produce food than its output. I also learned about the haber-bosch process–its use in industry is responsible for massive amounts of ‘nitrogen fixation.’

I couldn’t shake this interest in the massive amounts of algae being produced by over-fertilization. I found there’s a distinction between toxic & non-toxic algal blooms (this is a very cool project focused on the toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie). New York State has a website with information about, and contacting information for reporting HABS (harmful algae blooms). But, there are thousands of species of algae. I didn’t realize how much work was being put into innovative uses of algae. I found this industry site that catalogs innovations, research, and news. Algae is being used as biofertilizer and biofuel, to the extent that it’s already displacing some other agriculture.

I wanted to know what algae looked like at the micro level because I hadn’t seen it yet and wondered if it was a possible way to form my project.

After the analogy exercise we did in class I kept thinking about algae death and hypoxia–how in a way the algae are suffocated the life in the waters where they bloom, and how in the end they are also displacing the nutrients, water, and oxygen that other living things, including humans, need. I found this algaculture project while learning about algae farming, which struck me partially because of the uncomfortable-looking design which reminded me of the asphyxiation I began to associate with algae blooms. It’s also an imaginative extrapolation into what humans and our food source might become.

How fragile is our food system? If we run out of fertilizer how will we eat? Do we want to live in a future where the answer is algae?

I was able to send along some questions to one professor, and will meet with another at NYU this week. I hope to address some broad questions about how phosphorus depletion and over-fertilization relate to other planetary systems and boundaries, and more specific questions about the potential for recycling and re-use, including potentially the cultivation of algae.


What if we could manage nutrient flows and algae growth in such a way that we could usefully re-purpose the algae grown? The potential for algae re-use is interesting because it intersects with a number of other planetary boundaries we’re approaching: fresh water use, land use, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, and climate change. It could perhaps also address biodiversity loss if the toxic algal blooms are related to species die off at a significant rate (this is real but I am unsure of the magnitude), and definitely relates to social limits: most directly, food security.

At first I imagined taking a critical approach, where giving people a way to envision the pills and soylent-like concoctions of our likely future would be incentive to avoid such a fate. But after doing more research I am very curious about the viability. I also wonder whether people will be disgusted regardless of whether the product is purposefully unappetizing, or if edible algae could be made desirable.


In the future we may use the runoff from farms or cities to grow algae that among other uses like biofuel, could be used for food. Products that may result include algae spread, algae pills, and algae alcohol. By purposefully engineering the runoff with these non-toxic algae, these blooms will not only be controlled, but be useful, nutritious, and maybe trendy.