BioDesign Challenge

Last week the students of ASU Digital Culture and The Design School have presented their LIFE/LIGHT project at the Biogesign Challenge summit in MOMA, New York. The project was developed at AME 410 Interactive Materials course and finalized for the competition.

The summit happened for the third time, engaging enthusiasts that combine design with biotechnology. It is one of the largest biodesign events in the US and brings the attention of the growing community of designers and researchers.

Around twenty teams have participated in the Challenge this year from various schools and countries. The 1st prize was taken by the team from Central Saint Martins, UK, that have presented the concept of Quantumworm Mines. The runners-up were the students of  University of Edinburgh, UK with the research project “UKEW 2029” that showed parallels between biology and socio-political trends.


ASU project researched the potential of bioluminescent unicellular organisms and scrutinized the issue of co-habitat and control in a man-made environment. LIFE/LIGHT is an algae-driven living building system that produces fuel and light if properly taken care of.

We were designing in the middle-ground between an artifact, living nature, and humanity where the behavior of each component of the system influences its performance. (See figure 1.)


Figure 1. Concept diagram.

Choosing our components within the broad fields of nature and artifacts, we decided to look into the relationships between dinoflagellate, a capricious algae creature that illuminates ocean in a number of coastal cities, including San Diego, and architecture as a medium for most of the human activities.


With the increasing concerns about ecology, the notion of living architecture arises. In the age of Anthropocene, living buildings adapt to the constant flux of technological, social and environmental conditions through integration with living nature.

The best example of such thing, probably, would be the rice paddles in South Vietnam (image 1), a sustainable artifact of agriculture and built environment that existed for centuries.


Image 1. Rice paddles in South Vietnam, stock photo.

Among other inspirational examples are the Algae-fueled building in Hamburg designed by ARUP (image 2), the proposal by Mitchell Joachim for homes grown like plants (image 3), and the interactive installation by David Benjamin that visualized ecological conditions for the citizens of Seoul (image 4).


Image 2. BIQ algae-powered building in Hamburg, image courtesy of ARUP.


Image 3. FabTreeHub, image courtesy of Mitchell Joachim.


Image 4. Living Light, Seoul, image courtesy of David Benjamin and The Living New York.



Image 5. Bioluminescent dinoflagellate, stock photo.

Dinoflagellates are unicellular algae plankton chosen for the LIFE/LIGHT project due to the its qualities:



Image 5. Bioluminescent jellyfish, stock photo.

Bioluminescence is the ability of living organisms to produce light. The “cold light” produced by dinoflagellate is done without wasting energy compared to conventional
electrically generate light.

When agitated by movement, algae colony produces light for a short perious of time.

CO2 Consumption

Dinoflagellate photosynthesis is capable of converting CO2 in glucose. This provides residual potential energy within cultures longer after decay.

Conversion to biofuel

Dinoflagellates may contain large amounts of high-quality lipids, the principal component of fatty acid methyl esters. The harvest of these organisms provides a suitable choice as a bioresource for biodiesel production.

Natural medium

Dinoflagellates are marine organisms that thrive in the natural medium of marine water. It makes them suitable for growth in the coastal cities with the use of natural salt water resources only.


The dinoflagellates were grown in SANDS lab as part of the Digital Art Ranch at ASU.
This space supports DIY biology as well as other forms of researching interactive materials (image 6).


Image 6. The experience of working with dinoflagellates, photos from DAR.

Growing algae takes a lot of patience and attentiveness. Not only we had to keep in a specific medium for the lack of fresh marine water, but also synchronise its day and night cycles with the lab operating hours.

During the day cycle (~12 hours), photosynthesis happens, and algae transform CO2 into glucose. During the night cycle (~12 hours also), they multiply and show bioluminiscense if agitated. Like humans, dinoflagellates are active during the day, rest during the night, and are very irritated when their rest is interrupted.

The optimal living condition for dinoflagellate is a room temperature 18 to 24°C (65 to 75°F) and avoiding rapid temperature fluctuations. This was regulated using a white LED lamp, which can be changed for a cool white fluorescent light.


Time was a limiting factor as cultures would take a week or two to regain its properties from packaging. This opened for the possibility that cultures order may have been non-lively upon arrival.

Also the time for sub-dividing cultures takes 3-4 weeks, again letting the subcultures regain their properties. Then when testing cultures, this would have to be done over a span of days to few weeks to determine the necessary action for culturing.

A typical dinoflagellate flash of light contains about 100 million photons and lasts about a tenth of a second. In a testing format, it is suggested to use a control amount and compare the luminous value on the scale of 10. Also, one has to be very careful not to “stimulate” the culture before you actually measuring their light output because the first time they flash they produce a lot more light than each successive flash.


Patience and constantly being aware of the cultures. The cultures can be unforgiving when they begin to use bio luminescence and taking additional time to recharge before seeing the effect again. Also there was a problem to document the effect during an appropriate time.For circadian rhythms to

For circadian rhythms to be aligned with documentation during the day. The cultures would be in a night cycle during the day. Causing a problem of space, we had to devise a small container that would keep temperatures low and block enough light pollution from the room it was placed in.


The project is a living building system that is attached to buildings in coastal cities and relies on algae for light and fuel production. It utilizes ocean water resources as a medium for dinoflagellate. It consists of tubes filled with algae-infused fluid, distributed operational nodes that control the water flow and a controlling device.


Image 7. Facade system sketch

The system works in 3 different modus operandi: day, night and
harvesting organic residues for biofuel production.


System elements


Figure 2. System elements

Day mode

During the day, the water is supplied from the ocean water resources and distributed to the LIFE/LIGHT and other building systems, e.g. cooling. The algae-infused fluid flows into the tubes attached to a building facade and exposed to the sun.


Figure 3. Day mode

Night mode

At night, algae-infused water fills the interior tube system that prevents its exposure to
city night illumination. When moved, the fluid gives away cold light that supports quiet
night activities inside a building.

In this mode, the most interaction between a human and the system happens. Human and algae share the same habitat and have to live in harmony in order for the system to work. If the night cycle is distracted by a human’s late night activities, algae do not multiply. When a person moves within the space with the algae tubes, they also move, arousing bioluminescence and illuminating the space.


Figure 4. Night mode

Harvest mode

At the end of dinoflagellates life cycle, they become a residual organic matter that can be harvested in order to produce biofuel.


Figure 5. Night mode

Operational node

The node serves an illustration to a highway of tracks within a system.
There would be numerous tubes to ensure the cultures are filtering, harvesting and transport to the correct location.


Image 8. Operational node

Controlling node

Inspired by thermostats, the control unit provides a basis for displaying information and controlling additional systems in a house.

The 3 buttons would allow for the most critical options of the system to be chosen.
Additionally, the display provides a small sample of the dinoflagellates that would be tested. Depending on the condition of the sample and the previous sample was taken, the filter option could be accepted. Cycling the dinoflagellate culture and providing more medium.


Image 9. Controlling node

The origin of the design needed to resemble a simple form of communication to a user that performs maintenance with the architecture embedded system. Not only would it provide given information on the LCD screen but it has the ability to control other system operations as needed.


Image 10. Inspiration for the controlling node. Image courtecy of Honeywell.

The questions then are:

What is the boundary between an artifact and nature? Is the LIFE/LIGHT system alive?

Would you co-inhabit space in algae and adjust your habits so that both species thrive or control it remotely and transform living creatures into a utility?


Look, ask, try, learn

Our project is related to bioluminescence, algae, and situationism (urban and psychological theory). In my research, I was exploring all three aspects. I was also exploring potential connections of those with city water systems and waste water treatment.

look: what are people doing and saying?

The great source of inspiration for me are TED talks, so I spent some time finding and watching talks related to the topics of research. Some are more, others are less useful.

Energy from floating algae pods by Jonathan Trent

  • Biofuels that compete with fossil fuels
  • Algae grow in containers with waste water
  • Algae produce natural oil inside containers
  • Large area of algae pods
  • Microalgae – very small organisms, many species
  • Off-shore is a design decision
  • Waste water + CO2 + sun = growing algae + oxygen
  • Algae are biodegradable, can’t live in salt water
  • How to make algae happy? What they eat, what kills them?
  • Look at whole ecosystem
  • Circulate algae through plastic tubes; they take CO2 and the oxygen is “filtered”
  • What to do with plastic?

Pollution-free lights, powered by microbes by Sandra Ray

  • Use natural resources to avoid environmental disasters
  • Growing lights with limited resources
  • Some organisms have genes that provide bioluminescence
  • Native Americans were using insects as home lights!
  • Hard to use underwater bacteria
  • Introduce the genes to common bacteria found everywhere
  • Synthetic biology: system lasts longer, can have different colors, can be turned off and on
  • Changing perception of what light is and how we use it

How bacteria “talk” by Bonnie Bassler

  • Bacteria have one piece of DNA
  • Humans have 1o times bacterial cells than human cells
  • Bacteria communicate with light
  • Molecule produce light that turns on light when bacteria agglomerate
  • Squids use bioluminescence to “turn on” light and hide their shadow
  • Collective behavior of making light

The weird, wonderful world of bioluminescence by Edith Widder

  • Bioluminescent plankton: single-cell algae
  • Stir the flask to agitate algae
  • Shrimp, fishes, squids, corals – pretty much everything in the ocean
  • Squid makes up light “torpedos”
  • Brush against coral – it flashes light
  • Squeeze part of the animal – light goes to the ends
  • Optical Lure – 16 LEDs to talk to shrimps!

ask: elicit feedback or participation from someone in regards to your project idea

Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to interview people I wanted about the project. However, I was interested in community building before and interviewed several architects and landscape architects last semester. Below I am including the selected parts of the interviews that give a better overview of the issue that we are trying to solve with the project.

Wendell Burnette about canal system in Phoenix
Professor of Practice at The Design School at ASU (specialty in Architecture).
Founder and principal of Wendell Burnette Architects (architectural practice).

Another natural (and also historical) context of the Valley that may be important for designing a unique park environment is water. Native Americans who inhabited the Valley before the European colonization developed one of the most advanced irrigation systems of the ancient world – the canal system of the river Verde. Prof. Burnette recommended a book by Nabhan G. (2002) “The desert smells like rain” about its history. According to this book and other historical records, lives of native Americans was intertwined with water, its flow,  and natural cycle. The modern canal system that provides water for the Valley is built upon the ancient one. It is also important that Tempe itself was – and still is – an agricultural city. Not so long ago the canals were playing a significant role for the city. Cotton trees were planted alongside its banks and Tempe transit roads followed their courses. However, due to various circumstances, this green corridors system along the canals is no more. Professor Burnette said the city lost its character with it.

(From the interview report submitted on September 15th for DCS 598 class; interviewed on September 14th.)

James Hoffman about loci genius and community
Faculty Associate at The Design School at ASU (specialty in Landscape Architecture).
Founder and principal of Coffman Studio (landscape architectural and planning practice).

Mr. Coffman stated (interview for DSC 598 course, 12 Sept. 2016) that, in his experience, creating the unique personality of a place that relates to its users is one of design challenges that are most important for a successful performance of a space. It creates a huge benefit for people: if they are able to form an emotional connection to place, they start feeling that it is their own and feeling safe in it. It also benefits the city, as when people care about their surroundings, they would avoid damaging it and instead would be more ready to assist in bringing positive changes upon it.

(From the interview report submitted on September 15th for DCS 598 class; interviewed on September 12th.)

Anastasiya Yurkevich about paths and landmarks
Landscape architect at AFA (landscape architectural practice in Moscow, Russia).

Ms. Yurkevich claimed that there are two main factors that influence a design. First is proximity to a city center and other prominent landmarks that attract people and influence transit routes and a contingent of a park user groups. Second is social context and existing relationships of people with a space in focus. 

(From the interview report submitted on September 15th for DCS 598 class; interviewed on September 6th.)

I am now waiting for the interview confirmation from a biologist to explore bioluminescence from the scientific perspective.

try: simulate or participate in an activity yourself

How I drifted the city of Tempe and explored the city as a situationist.

The notion of psychogeography as a tool to describe the city interests me profoundly. Taking inspiration from the pioneers of situationism, I made a short dérive in Tempe late in the evening.

As defined on the web page of situationists movement, dérive (“drifting”) is “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.”

Using this technique I explored the affordance of Tempe urban environment for the act of drifting itself and exploration after the sunset. The questions I tried to ask were:

  • What triggered me to make an unexpected turn into an unknown street?
  • What prevented me from doing it?
  • How do other pedestrians behave in streets? Do they stroll aimlessly, for leisure or do they seem to have a destination? Do they stop if something interesting is happening?

I have started my journey from home around 7 p.m. when the sun was setting down. I have decided to go in the direction of the Beach Park first. In the next three hours, I walked to the other side of the Salt river, was scared to death by a weirdo in the street, tried to find a place I remember from awhile and failed, got lost and used a map application to return home. During my drift I realized several things:

  • There are not many pedestrians in the city even on Saturday night.
  • All pedestrians are hanging out in places of attraction: parks, The Mill street, and ASU campus. Outside of these places they were clearly going towards their destinations, maybe homes.
  • There are more cyclists than pedestrians.
  • There are some people jogging on the big streets like University Drive.
  • I got scared by dimly lighted roads and tended to follow the most illuminated paths.
  • Meeting just one person on an empty street made me wary. If I met several people, I felt comfortable.
  • I mainly navigated the city using light and sound. Music and lights attracted me. Cafes that used creative lighting peaked my interests the most.
  • Surprisingly, empty parking lot are lighted at least as well as pedestrian streets.
  • Most of the places in Tempe look very similar to each other.

Unfortunately, my camera is not good with low light 😦

learn: identify ‘thoughtless acts’, patterns, problems, or opportunities.

  • There are possibilities of energy generation and CO2 treatment using algae
  • Phoenix citizens lack awareness about the canal system.
  • Walking in night requires not only navigational lighting but also certain security levels provided by bright lights and presence of other people. All three factors provide the affordance of urban space to explore using unusual paths.
  • Algae can reproduce and thus pollute fresh water reservoirs, have to be really careful.
  • The act of lighting up algae by agitating it could become an act of volunteer placemaking and shaping the city.
  • Algae can show the street activity and pop-up events like picnics or even street sports.

Veronika’s CapSense

I was trying to create a food-defining plate, but could not get steady CapSense reading, so decided to make an”anti-thief” plate. The idea behind this simple solution is that the plate starts crying and blinking when someone touches YOUR cookies.

Unfortunately, my buzzer lacked a ground cable and my LED was so dim that not even the most cowardly thief would hesitate when stealing my food. But hey, now I know at least 2 ineffective systems!

I have also marinated tomatoes and put them on my plate. That may not be much for the development of spatial interactivity, but! That was my first self-made fermented food.




The code (above) is quite simple. I have tried to make a more complex code for the food-defining plate, but could not check completely whether it works or not.


Analog Sensor

I used conductive tape and paint in order to create an analog sensor. One of the two LEDs is lighted by the circuit, according to the voltage of the potentiometer.

int inputPin = A0;
int WhiteLED = 13;
int RedLED = 3;

void setup() {
pinMode(inputPin, INPUT);
pinMode(WhiteLED, OUTPUT);
pinMode(RedLED, OUTPUT);

void loop() {
// put your main code here, to run repeatedly:
int value = analogRead(inputPin);
int ledValue = map(value, 0, 1023, 0, 255);

if (ledValue >= 100) {
analogWrite(WhiteLED, ledValue);
digitalWrite(RedLED, LOW);
delay (1000);

else {
analogWrite(RedLED, ledValue);
digitalWrite(WhiteLED, LOW);
delay (1000);

On the reading: Biology-inspired designs

Hello, all! During the last class, I have mentioned several projects or ideas that you may find inspirational.

GIY or Grow It Yourself trend

1. TED: Don’t build your home, grow it!
by Mitchell Joachim

2. TED: Grow Your Own Clothes
by Suzanne Lee


Check out this cool project made by one of the students at IAAC, Barcelona. It is green wall units with moss inside that produces electricity. (Yes, moss, the very normal one.)

Moss Voltaics from Elena Mitro on Vimeo.