This architect turned scientist is growing living walls that feed off carbon
As an architect designing ecological retreats and other green architecture projects, Prantar Tamuli realised early on that his practice relied on materials and technologies developed outside of his field, and that to fundamentally change the way we build, the same type of exploration should happen within architecture.
Now a PhD student within the UCL Bio-Integrated Design Lab conducting research at the intersection of architecture and biotechnology, Tamuli has developed a new construction material out of cyanobacteria — some of the first living organisms on Earth — that can grow into walls and other architectural elements capable of absorbing carbon and characterised by a unique translucent quality. He’s called it the Photonite, and his startup is TATTVA.
“I became fascinated with these photosynthetic organisms because ecologically they have a massive significance,” Tamuli says. “In the beginning, when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was highly toxic — above 25% — cyanobacteria were able to convert it into oxygen through photosynthesis and sequester it into minerals. It was the Great Oxygenation Event.”
In the current climate crisis, carbon dioxide makes up only 0.04% of the atmosphere, and Tamuli sees cyanobacteria as the solution.
While studying these organisms, he noticed that under certain conditions they can produce mineralised rocks, following a biological process similar to how the human body produces teeth and bones.
Yet, they take hundreds of years to grow significantly. Inspired by artificial tissue engineering approaches used for lab-grown meat and organs, Tamuli found that by providing hydrogel scaffolds that let the light through and adding nutrients, cyanobacteria can grow into a material as strong as a brick in just a few weeks.
“There’s a movement of companies growing materials out of living organisms, but with one exception, none of them are working with photosynthetic bacteria,” Tamuli says. “Our material is different because, through our tissue engineering approach, we sustain it in a way that doesn’t let it grow further, but it stays alive. Because of this, it is translucent and green.”
Tamuli describes it as something between a glass and a wall, and its functional strength accompanied by its unique colour and properties could inspire innovative applications in design and architecture — whether in our cities or on Mars. The PhD student doesn’t see the Photonite as a replacement to existing materials, but as a new product with novel application scenarios and uses.
“I see it as a biological augmentation — a carbon-negative feature that could be installed in buildings, for instance,” he says.
Working with photosynthetic organisms also means that it is possible to control the colour of the new material — yellow, green or blue — and the direction of growth of the cyanobacteria as they respond differently to varying light wavelengths, much like sunflowers turn towards the sun.
Once the material has reached the desired shape and size and the gel is removed, organisms can continue to live for at least six months without requiring additional maintenance — by absorbing moisture from the air.
The largest prototype grown by the TATTVA team to date is a structurally stable 2-by-1 panel that removes about 15kg of CO2 per day — compared to 5kg of CO2 released by a similar amount of cement. One of Tamuli’s goals at the moment is to optimise the manufacturing process to ensure the material is carbon-negative across its entire life cycle.
After being recognised by the British Phycological Society last year, Tamuli joined Cohort V at Conception X to explore ways to turn his technology into a product, understand who his potential customers could be and get exposure to industry experts.
“Because my research is inherently interdisciplinary — borrowing from architecture, design, biochemical engineering — it’s slightly complex and I wanted to see what the best strategy would be to bring this to market,” Tamuli says.
“One of the most positive developments has been a series of conversations with senior executives, materials engineers and climate specialists at one of the largest architecture firms in the world that has an on-going lunar construction project with NASA. I’ve received positive feedback and they said they’d like to test the material. I’ve also been able to recently exhibit at the London Festival of Architecture.”
“I do not know how I would come across this kind of a network on my own,” he adds.
Asked how he would define success for TATTVA and himself as a founder, Tamuli says: “Beyond purely seeing this technology applied in the architecture field, I would like to have as much impact as possible by securing a large use case and scaling up, and by continuing to explore how technology and biology can work together to live in more ecologically conscious ways.”
Tamuli is now working with architecture firm Studio Biocene to build a demonstration carbon-negative structure commissioned by the St Andrews Botanic Garden. The plan is to eventually collaborate with prefab manufacturers to produce biologically grown houses, and he plans to start raising in 2023.