In the opening of the recently released sci-fi film, Blade Runner: 2049, we see the protagonist, K, track down a renegade replicant to his protein farm. On the farm, the replicant grows grub-like insects in water for food. While vegans would disapprove, this seems like a low-impact way to feed the near-future inhabitants of earth. Not only are the bugs renewable, but they take up next to no space and produce no pollution from what we can tell in the film. I love cyberpunk aesthetics and narratives, so I was happy to find out that we already have sustainable energy generators powered by living organisms (which are also vegan); they’re called bioreactors.
A bioreactor is a device that uses microorganisms in a closed-loop system to either synthesize usable substances like algae, moss, and cyanobacteria, or transform a useless substance, like cleaning raw sewage water. The synthesized materials can then be used to make practical and sustainable goods for human consumption. These systems are inspired by the natural process through which small organisms break down debris like fallen leaves and the natural growth of algae and moss. Both processes are small but have huge impacts on an ecosystem. Consider the impact acidification is having on our oceans — excessive algae blooms make the water unlivable for other organisms. Bioreactors are sustainable because they are self-sustaining under the right conditions, meaning the organisms have everything they need to grow and create indefinitely without making waste. It’s like a balanced ecosystem, but in a lab.
One way bioreactors can make the world more sustainable is by growing biofuel. Researchers at Arizona State University created a bioreactor to grow cyanobacteria (which are very close to algae) to do just that. Using simple and sustainable energy like light, water, and small plant-like organisms, the process of photosynthesis turns carbon dioxide into a usable fuel. This not only makes a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, but sequesters carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. It also reuses many of the nutrients in the cycle and is built to mimic nature, even with fluorescent lights that turn on and off as the sun rises and sets.
Bioreactors can also be used to create green living spaces. The Living Architecture (LIAR) project researches bioreactors specifically for the purpose of transforming traditional indoor spaces into environmentally friendly, productive architecture. One suggestion is in replacing the walls of a structure with bioreactors. These would help make a home or community center nearly carbon neutral. A fuel cell bioreactor could use anaerobic bacteria to create electricity and clean water without having to burn coal or go through a processing plant. An algae photobioreactor could grow biomass (living things) for food and fuel. If the algae can grow moss suitable for human consumption, it would take a huge strain off the environment to create our foods. Just add sunlight, water, and waste, and your new microorganism friends will make energy, food, drinking water, fertilizer, or detergent.
Bioreactors haven’t yet made the jump into popular culture because they’re bulky and expensive, but that can change. As groups like Living Architecture can make them accessible to the public, it’s only a matter of time that they, like solar panels before them, become available to consumers and real estate developers. By using these tiny powerhouses of energy, we can harness nature without destroying it, as we have through most of human history. Bioreactors are just one of many developments on the horizon for making the world more sustainable, but I’m drawn to them because they act like sustainable batteries and filtration systems, much like a balanced hydroponic method of growing crops. I hope to see more coverage of the developments within the realm of bioreactor innovations over the next few years so researchers can find more funding and support for their work.
Have a favorite piece of sci-fi tech that you wish existed or know about research into new methods of sustainable living? Share in the comments!