Archive for the ‘design of living systems’ Category

ITP WC: The System Is Alive

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

ITPWC is a phytoremediation device based on the Eco-Machine systems developed by Dr. John Todd* and research done by the ITPWC team on aquaponics systems. Built in the men’s bathroom on the ITP floor, our inspiration for this project was to create a system that made a positive impact on air quality while also improving the overall ambiance of the space.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaponic systems are designed to grow plants and fish symbiotically in one integrated system. The fish waste provides a food source for the growing plants and the plants provide a natural filter for the water that the fish live in.

A large scale aquaponic system build on the Eco-Machine paradigm has been designed to filter human-created wastes from water, so that water can be recycled for human usage. This system lives at the Omega Center in upstate New York. Two members of ITPWC team had an opportunity to visit Omega, and get a tour of this new inspirational creation.

To track the impact that this system had on the air quality in the men’s room, we installed sensors that measure changes in the level of methane and solvent vapors. These sensors were attached to an Arduino that uploaded average readings every five minutes to data feed on Pachube.

Here is an overview of how the different components in this system work together to create a symbiotic ecosystem and to remediate the water:

  1. Aquaculture: The fish living in this component excrete waste and ammonia into the water, which will act as fertilizer for the plants. Water is pumped up to the grow bed and then gravity does the rest to keep things moving.
  2. Phytoremediation: These plants remove chemical vapors from the air, as well as help rid the water of pollutants. They absorb nutrients from the nitrate-rich water and produce oxygen at a high rate. Plants used include dresden, boston fern, golden pathos, english ivy, peace lily.
  3. Aquaticremediation: Aquatic plant roots provide habitat for waste eating microbes. Filter feeders, like the clams in this system, help remove algae and other toxic particulates from the water. Plants used include penny worts, banana plant, freshwater plant, freshwater flat clams, and duckweed.
  4. Bio-Filter: The bio-filter is an anaerobic environment (no oxygen) where micro-organisms and bacteria strip any excess ammonia, nitrates, nitrites and phosphorus that remain in the water. The mud used to inoculate the system comes from Prospect Park lake in Brooklyn.

I want to thank the ITP WC team for all the hard that they devoted in building this system. We all wore many hats on this project but I want to give credit where it is due. Macaulay took the lead on the physical design and production of this living system, while Adib became our resident aquaponic/eco-machine expert, and Marko led the way in creating the communications for to system.

Here are some pictures from the installation itself:

ITP WC: Building the Installation and Fixing the Code

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

During this past week we continued to make good progress on the ITP WC project. Our main objectives were to continue working on building the physical structure for the aquaponic installation and to fix issues with the sensors to ensure that we are able to get valid readings from the bathroom.

The Physical Build
After working on developing detailed plans for the bathroom installation, Adib, Marko and Macaulay set out to construct the structure for the aquaponic system. The final design leverages the large Poland Springs bottles that are common to the bathroom as the containers for the living system. To create an appropriate structure, Adib designed a set of clear plexi stands that will serve as displays for the repurposed bottles. Here are a few design sketches:

The Bathroom Layout – Overhead View

ITP WC Design - Bathroom Layout

The Aquaponic System – Close-Up View

Now here are a few pictures of Adib, Marko and Macaulay working on building the installation earlier today.

Air Quality Sensors
On the air quality sensing front we continued to encounter some issues. For our Carbon Monoxide and Methane sensors to work properly we had to re-write the Arduino code. While for our Pachube feed to work continuously we had to upgrade our account to Pro level (luckily, for students the pro membership level is free).

Here is a brief overview of the changes that we incorporated into the code for the Methane and Carbon Monoxide sensors. Working with gas sensors is usually tough. One of the main reasons is that gas sensors need to run for several days before they are able to provide accurate readings (usually they need to run for 4 to 5 days). Since we set-up our sensors we had been encountering problems with the readings readings and the feed.

Based on information that I found out from conversations with Melissa Clarke last week I became aware that we needed to set-up our sensors differently. Carbon Monoxide and Methane sensors require that their heating element receive alternating amounts of voltage every 20 seconds. Furthermore, in order to get accurate readings it is crucial that the microprocessor capture data during a very small timeframe that lasts approximately 5 milliseconds.

This data was not clearly spelled out in the short datasheet that I received along with the sensors. It was only after finding the the detailed documentation online that I was able to accurately understand how to write the code. Here is a link to the code I wrote, available on github.

Local Sensing, Worldwide Sharing

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Over the past week we have been making a lot of progress on our bathroom intervention project, ITP WC. Macaulay and Adib have been taking the lead on the physical design and planning for our installation, including the aquaponic system. They have completed some initial prototyping work and have begun to procure the materials for the final build. More updates to come on that front from the two of them.

Marko and I have been focusing our efforts on creating the circuits that feature the gas sensors, and writing the code to share the data using Pachube. I’m happy to report that we have come a long way. We have installed our two first sensors in the ITP men’s room and we have started to feed data to Pachube (feed 11193).

Our first step was to set up the sensors on a breadboard and hook them up to an Arduino with an Ethernet shield. We started with a sensor the captures Methane and Carbon Monoxide (TGS 3870), and a second one that captures solvent vapors (TGS 2600). For building the simple circuits we got some help from an instructable article, since the datasheets from Figaro left much to be desired. We also looked at some tutorials on the arduino site to get up and running with the ethernet shield.

Getting started on Pachube required a good bit of learning. We had to get up to speed on Pachube’s API, which is not very complex but does require some time and effort. We used one of their tutorials as the basis for our code.

The last step was getting the sensors installed in the bathroom and tweaking the code to make sure we were getting reliable readings. The main change we incorporated into the code was to add functionality that takes several readings from the bathroom during a one minute period and averages those readings together uploading data to Pachube (which is done once a minute).

Finding the Right Gas Sensor

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks we have been doing a lot of research regarding sensors that can detect the level of various gases present in our environment. Our main focus has been on finding detection of Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Oxygen, and Various VOC vapors (e.g. ammonia, benzene, formaldehyde, etc). After some research, a colleague of ours found a company called Figaro that offers sensors that can detect most of the gases we want to monitor.

We have come to realize that the sensors available that work with the Arduino (which we will use for prototyping) are not able to provide data regarding individual gases. They only provide data regarding the presence of a variety of gases. For example, Figaro’s TGS822 sensor detects a whole family of VOCs: Ethanol, Tulene, Acetone, Benzene & Xylene. In order to sense gases individually we would need to use high-end solutions that are outside of our current budget range.

During our research we came across some interesting information about the higher-end gas sensors available on the market (thanks to the help of Eric Rosenthal). Here is an overview of what we discovered:

NASA is doing some interesting work related to creating sensor arrays for sensing gasses. The applications of this research is related to leak detection, fire detection, and to create an “electronic nose”. These individual projects are aiming to create system that achieves these goals, using a package that is about the size of a postage stamp. Unfortunately, most of NASA’s work is associated to creating sensors that can used in engines and other high-stress environments.

In an article from the magazine Science Daily we learned about laser technology that has been recently developed in the European Union that enables the use of laser to sense a wide array of gasses. This type of sensor does provide the resolution we ideally wanted – enabling the detection of individual gases. Now if we can only get ITP to give us several thousand dollars to support this project then we can look into one of these.

Now that we have found most of the sensors we need, we have begun to focus on creating the circuits and writing the code to collect data and publish it to Pachube. Next up I will post some information about this step.

ITP WC: Water & Air Remediation System

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

A bathroom intervention that brings awareness to water waste and air quality issues in our public spaces. We are designing a natural system that captures and remediates grey water from the ITP bathroom sink, feeds it into a plant-based aquaponic air remediation system, and uses the remaining water for the toilet flushing system. Water and air quality information will be communicated to bathroom users so that they continue to choose this bathroom over other options available on the ITP bathroom.

I will collaborate with Adib Dada and Macaulay Campbell on this project. We have agreed to break it down into a few major components. Each component will have a different lead, though everyone will be expected to contribute across all aspects of the project. (1) water remediation system, led by Adib; (2) aquaponic air remediation system, led by Macaulay; (3) sensor systems (air quality sensors and water usage sensors), led by Julio Terra; (4) data visualization component, led by Julio Terra.

Multiphase Implementation Plan
To bring this project to life we have developed a multi-phase implementation plan. We are currently in the research and needs assessment phase, which will last for another 2-weeks. During this phase we will research how to build each of the system components listed above, select the plants for the aquaponics system, request access to appropriate resources from ITP, and identify appropriate sensors.

Next, we will begin the prototyping phase. During this phase we will create initial versions of the sensor circuits and install them in the bathroom to create initial reading benchmarks; we will also build working versions of the water and air remediation systems to test that they work properly independently. Once we have built the initial prototypes we will adjust our design to address issues that arise. This phase will last for 3-weeks.

The last phase will be the integration phase. At this point we will integrate the systems, run final tests, and make any final adjustments to get things to work properly. This final phase will last about 2- to 3-weeks.

It is important to note that we may not be able to implement all aspects of this concept. However, we hope that we can implement enough elements to be able to create a compelling proof of concept. Here is a more detailed overview of the work we are carrying out in the current phase.

Needs Assessment & Research Phase
(1) Water Remediation System: research water remediation strategies to identify appropriate approach for water remediation system. Design system to capture water from sink and determine how to handle captured water. Request approval from ITP to use floor resources.

(2) Aquaponic Air Remediation System: research about how to build an aquaponic systems and determine which plants should be used based on their ability to remediate air quality.

(3) Sensor Systems: identify the most important particles that need to be tracked from an air quality perspective; find and purchase the appropriate sensors. Identify and purchase a sensor that can measure the amount of water that is being used on the bathroom sink.

(4) Data Visualizations: identify what data should be used as part of the visualization. Request approval from ITP to use floor resources (video projector or monitor in bathroom).

Immediate Next Steps
- Identify and purchase sensors for the project
- Get approvals to use ITP floor resources from Rob
- Research natural water remediation strategies
- Identify aquaponic plants that remediate air

The Living System or Where I Live

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

On the LES of Manhattan there exists a living system that is very important to me. It is called home by me and 60 or so other living beings (humans, cats, dogs, and plants) who share this man-made structure as a living space. It is also called office by 50 or so people who use this edifice as a workspace.

This living system is composed of several smaller living systems – 20 apartments and 1 office – that share a number of resources and services. The most apparent shared resource is the building structure itself. This structure provides protection from a variety of external elements such as wind, rain, and pollution and from foreign critters such as mice mosquitos and cockroaches.

Hallways, stairways, and an elevator were added to the building to enable the flow of people, animals and objects (such as food, wastes, and other consumables) in and out of the system. A specialized shoot was created as a digestive system for garbage, taking input from each floor to a central compacting station in the basement. Recyclables must be transported using standard transportation structures mentioned previously.

Four separate circulatory systems exists that provide the building with water, energy, and temperature regulation capabilities. The plumbing system is the only bi-directional circulatory system. The other two systems are uni-directional.

The plumbing system brings clean water into and removes dirty water from each apartment and the shared laundry room.  The electric system provides power to all apartments and offices, while also supporting shared services such as the elevator and lighting systems; the temperature regulation system delivers cold or hot air throughout the building.

[Pictures will be added shortly]

The Power of Mushrooms

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Usually, when we think of mushrooms the first thing that comes to mind is shitake, portobello, or magic mushrooms. This is a very limited view of the wonders of mushrooms – especially for people like me who are don’t like the flavor and texture of fungi. Paul Stamets has given me a whole new respect and admiration for these organisms.

Paul is the fungi-expert who has researched the use of various types of mushrooms that can make a real impact on the health of our planet. He is the founder of Fungi Perfecti, an organization dedicated to finding new and beneficial uses of fungi.

In this video from TED Paul shares how mushrooms play a key role in maintaining the health of numerous ecosystems on earth. He also shares examples of his research where he has identified ways that fungi can be used to address current natural disasters such as the gulf oil spil; combat soil contamination associated to use of chemicals by farms; and create a new source of clean energy for our planet.

Biomimicry: Design Inspiration from Nature

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Earlier today I started to read about Biomimicry, a concept that I will be exploring throughout this semester in my class “the Design of Living Systems”. Biomimicry is the examination “of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems” (quote from wikipedia). The term biomimicry was popularized by Janine Benyus, in her 1997 book with the same title. Here is a video where Janine talks about biomimicry and shares several examples.

The Biomimicry Institute, which was founded by Janine, is a not-for-profit organization that is focused on promoting the study of nature to inspire the design of services, products and technologies. They help connect scientists and designers, provide resources for educational institutions, and support creation of public policies that aim to leverage biomimicry as a source of solutions. is a project born out of the Biomimicry Institute. Its aim is to create a community that brings together scientists and designers to collaborate on the design of sustainable solutions to problems of all shapes and sizes.