Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto are co-founders of London-based ecoLogic studio. Since 2005, they have been developing a process of using micro-algae to filter air pollutants and turn them into useful material. They demonstrate their concept through prototypes at the architectural and urban scale, proposing a way to live with pollution in a more productive, local and empowered way.
What led you to working with the issue of air quality in the built environment?
Our interest is in ecology. The elements that are present in the air, the water, or that constitute the built environment. We see what are traditionally called pollutants as resources. We look at our city’s byproducts, not only as pollutants to be disposed of, but as something that can re-enter the city’s metabolism. We work a lot with micro algae which are very good at absorbing and feeding on some of the polluting elements of our cities present both in water and air.
Humans have become very efficient in extracting material from the earth but when we’ve used what we need the rest is just discarded. That is very inefficient. That’s why seas are full of plastic, the air is full of chemicals. Now extraction is more expensive and damaging. What is being dumped into the sea and air is toxic to us and many forms of life on earth. We need to start mining the air and the water to collect these materials and filter them out.
You see air pollutants as a resource. Are they overlooked compared to more visible forms of waste?
Most pollutants are overlooked as a resource because the system is still very centralized. And unless you are allergic or sensitive to elements in the air then it is invisible. The number of people affected by allergies is increasing, so there probably is greater awareness. But we still don’t think about air as something you can transform on your own and understand. Air quality measured in average numbers makes little sense. Because it changes from metre to metre, from minute to minute. It’s a dynamic microclimate. And it not only changes in space, but time. We need to develop awareness of how to deal with the air that surrounds you. Change it, transform it, measure it, learn to harvest some of its elements in a totally different and dynamic relationship. More like gardening the air, rather than just cleaning it.
What is the advantage of using algae as an air filter?
Micro-organisms like algae are tiny, single-cell organisms, so you can effectively design a habitat for them to grow and perform their metabolic action. This gives greater freedom than with a tree, for example. With micro-algae you have more flexible, effective, immediate relief in very dense environments. That’s what we are trying to demonstrate and develop. We’ve designed reactors (the vessels where living cultures grow) that can be integrated within a façade or in an interior space, your home or office.
How do you imagine these systems working at scale?
So far, we’ve done more than 20 activations and demonstrated that it is possible to grow these micro-organisms pretty much in any environment. Of course, knowledge is required to be able to integrate them effectively. It’s not one solution fits all. You need to handle temperature, light conditions, and make it possible for occupants to interact with these systems quickly and easily. To garden and nourish them. The next phase is not about scaling in terms of making huge installations but a diffusion of smaller systems that become pervasive and therefore more people benefit from it.
What can we make from the byproduct of the algae filtration process?
When algae essentially ‘eats’ the pollutants, it becomes biomass itself. The cells duplicate and keep growing. The beauty of working with living organisms is that you are not left with waste, but effectively a new material. One application is to make a biodegradable polymer – an alternative to plastic. For Otrivin Air Lab (London, 2022) we used it in a 3D printer to create lightweight and strong objects that were inspired by nature in content, shape and form. We have been able to scale this process as well. In Korea, we worked with Hyundai’s industrial car-making robots to create Tree.ONE, a 10m-tall 3D-printed structure made entirely of biodegradable polymer.
What are the limitations of this process? It is an entirely closed loop?
In nature, I don’t think there really are closed loops. There are a lot of circular systems, but they tend to be interlocked with each other. Nothing is isolated. As humans we can only work with the technology before us, so we are constantly re-purposing tools to make them more efficient and understand them in new ways. In our work we are trying to bring circularity to every single process and connect them together so there are multiple advantages.
Culturally we have developed this habit of treating one element at a time. But nature-based solutions don’t behave in this manner, they tackle multiple problems. And you need to work with this to grab the opportunity for circularity. Now we are harvesting the biomass byproduct for food and material and looking at ways to connect it with other processes in a way that is multi-layered.
Was AirBubble playground (2021) an idea of how we can be involved in managing air but not in a work-like way?
AirBubble takes the viewpoint of children as the most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Their lungs are still developing, they are lower to the ground, and typically breathing very intensively as they play and run. The realisation that pollution has a peculiar, localised effect gave us the opportunity design a microclimate of air. The project was about raising awareness and trying to push for policies that affect the whole city but at the same time give hope for an intervention that can be replicated quickly and across many different urban realities with immediate beneficial effect.
And of course, through play you learn in a way that is more powerful than a lecture or book. Kids played in it without thinking about how bad pollution is. It was a way to take the science and turn it into an instrument for action.
One way people are trying to improve their local air quality is by wearing filtration masks. Is it best to adapt the body, or the environment?
From my point of view, it’s not possible to separate the two because they are in a feedback loop. We change the environment, and it changes us. What needs to evolve is our understanding of the environment despite the technological evolution of the last 250 years. I’m not sure we have had a parallel increase in our understanding of the living world in that time. In fact, the contrary. Science has given us the instruments to manipulate the living world, but we have traded that for the much more profound and intuitive understanding that our ancestors had.
It’s more a cultural shift that is required. If you look at prehistory, humans would rely quite a lot on magic. Magic was a form of better understanding the environment. Certain rituals allowed you to take care of yourself and the surroundings. Then came a whole rational era where science started to detect what the environment is about. For me, it’s about how we embrace these two aspects of our knowledge. How do we use design to bring back a bit of magic to science? Now we know how to dissect the world, we seem to have forgotten how to interact with it. We need to go back and create a different kind of symbiosis.
At the same time, we can’t remove everything from the air. At the Otrivin Air Lab, we have developed bio-based products as part of a daily practice to take care of our bodies and the environment, such as the Fibonacci NetiPot. We’ve become disconnected from these practices, like the way our concept of food and medicine have become separated. It’s really important that to reconnect actions on a bodily level and a landscape level.
Thinking to the near future, how will the issue of air quality be addressed in cities?
I believe we are in a bifurcation period. Things could go either way. There is growing interest and investment in ecology from industry and that is a plus, but to really tackle it in a bottom-up manner we really need to embrace this cultural shift. We need to work with multiple variables, parameters that are fluctuating, and completely move away from the Industrial Revolution idea of having everything segregated. This is still something that needs to emerge.
Nothing is written in stone, but I really believe we are at a point that requires everyone’s awareness and contribution. Education and work with young people are fundamental. I think our projects like AirBubble and Air Lab have a strong educational element. A lot of our work also tries to being people out of the passive consumer position. I don’t think our contribution to this problem should just be recycling – that’s just a way of continuing business as usual. [We encourage people] to be creators and innovators, and in that process become aware of their power.