- Living machines
Living Machines are a form of biological
wastewater treatmentdesigned to mimic the cleansing functions of wetlands. They are intensive bioremediationsystems that can also produce beneficial by-products such as methanegas, edible and ornamental plants, and fish. Aquatic and wetlandplants, bacteria, algae, protozoa, plankton, snails, clams, fishand other organisms are used in the system to provide specific cleansing or trophicfunctions. In temperate climates, the system of tanks, pipes and filters is housed in a greenhouse to raise the temperature, and thus the rate of biological activity. The initial development of living machines is generally credited to John Todd, and evolved out of the bioshelterconcept developed at the now-defunct New Alchemy Institute. "Living Machine" is a trademarked term held by [http://www.livingdesignsgroup.com/green-engineering-and-living-m/ Living Designs Group, LLC] of Taos, New Mexico. Living machines fall within the emerging discipline of ecological engineering, and many similar systems are built in Europewithout being dubbed “Living Machines.”
The scale of living machines ranges from the backyard experiment to dependable
public works. Some living machines treat domestic wastewaterin small, ecologically-conscious villages, such as Findhorn Community in Scotland[ [http://www.ecovillagefindhorn.com/biological/index.php Ecovillage Findhorn: Biological Waste Water Treatment ] ] , and some treat the mixed municipal wastewater for semi-urban areas, such as South Burlington, Vermont. [www.epa.gov/owmitnet/mtb/living_machine.pdf]
Each system is designed to handle a certain volume of water per day, but the system is also tailored for the qualities of the specific influent. For example, if the influent contains high levels of
heavy metals, the living machine must be designed to include the proper biota to accumulate the metals. [Todd, Nancy J. 2005, A Safe and Sustainable World: The promise of Ecological Design. Island Press, Washington D.C.] During the “spring cleaning” season, there may be high levels of bleachin the water. This sudden concentration of a toxinis an example of a "steep gradient".
*"Steep gradients" are drastic changes in conditions throughout the system that challenge the
ecosystemto become resilient and stable. [Todd, John and B. Josephson. “The Design of Living Technologies for Waste Treatment.” Ecological Engineering 6 (1996) 109-136.] A well-designed living machine requires little management, so managers may intentionally create abrupt environmental or biochemicalchanges to promote ecosystem self-regulation. This mimics nature’s power and trains the ecosystem to adapt to influent variations.
*Designers seek to increase the surface area of contact that biota have with the sewage to promote high reaction rates. When organisms have ready access to the sewage, they can treat it more thoroughly.
*The living machine is cellular, as opposed to monolithic, in design. If influent volume or makeup changes, new cells can be added or omitted without halting or disturbing the ecosystem.
Photosyntheticplants and algae are important for oxygenating water, providing a medium for biofilms, sequestering heavy metalsand many other services.
Species diversity is a design goal that promotes complexity and resiliency in an
ecosystem. Functional redundancy (the presence of multiple species that provide the same function) is an important example of the need for biodiversity. Snails and fish filter sludge and act as diagnostics; when a toxic load enters, snails will rise above the water level on the wall of the tank.
*The micro-ecosystem of the living machine can be integrated with the macro-ecosystem just as ecosystems fade into one another naturally. This connection is commonly made with an outdoor constructed or natural wetland into which the effluent flows. Some living machines are partially or completely open to the outdoors, and this promotes interaction with the surrounding environment. [Todd, John and B. Josephson. “The Design of Living Technologies for Waste Treatment.” Ecological Engineering 6 (1996) 109-136.]
"The above points are an incomplete synthesis of a [http://www.oceanarks.org/education/resources/design/ paper by Todd and Josephson] ."
Comparison with conventional treatment
Björn Guterstam critiques conventional wastewater treatment for five different inadequacies that living machines address. This evaluation explains the basis of his five points of contention: [Guterstam, Bjorn. 1996. Ecological engineering for wastewater and its application in New England and Sweden. Ecological Engineering 6 (96- 108).]
*First, conventional treatment focuses narrowly on treating water and produces an often toxic sludge as a by-product of this cleaning process. Living machines can greatly reduce this sludge by conversion into biomass.
*Conventional treatment uses environmentally harmful chemicals (namely
chlorine) to disinfect effluent following precipitation of solids (sludge) from the wastewater stream. Ecological treatment uses biological processes instead of chemical inputs.
*Traditional processes do not adequately sequester heavy metals, and the sludge can also contain manmade organic compounds that are extremely difficult to break down. Some critics assert that the disposal of this sludge is not responsibly overseen in the
United States, so the excess sludge is sometimes spread on public forest or even agricultural land, dumped in landfills or the ocean, and sometimes incinerated. [Wilson, Duff. "Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, A Global Industry and a Toxic Secret." Harper, 2002.] This not only pollutes the environment with unnaturally high concentrations of toxins but also wastes a valuable resource. Living machines can sequester heavy metals by plant uptake and the plants can be incinerated and the metals isolated in ash for safe storage. These life-giving machines convert sludge into organic tissues such as fish, flowers and medicinal plants that have human uses.
A contained microsystem can be very successful in recycling nutrients, organic matter, and water. Depending on the toxicity and makeup of the influent, living machines can treat water to tertiary treatment standards and even reach potable standards for most or all metrics. This excellent organic recycling is possible if the
biosolidsare not heavily contaminated with persistent pollutants (such as aluminum, which retards biotic growth). Mixed domestic/industrial municipalinfluent is more polluted, so a living machine may not always be able to treat every contaminant to levels that would not stress the ecosystem that receives the effluent. In this case, more treatment is necessary, which can be achieved by drainage into constructed wetlandswhich provide a different type of ecosystem that provides a fresh lineup of ecological players and services that can further process pollutants.
*Living machines have employed clams to filter colloidal materials and fine suspended solids. Conventional treatment runs into engineering troubles when it attempts to handle these microscopic particles. [Guterstam, Bjorn. 1996. Ecological engineering for wastewater and its application in New England and Sweden. Ecological Engineering 6 (96- 108).] [Todd, John and B. Josephson. “The Design of Living Technologies for Waste Treatment.” Ecological Engineering 6 (1996) 109-136.]
*Conventional treatment is capital and energy intensive, whereas natural treatment is design intensive (and also management intensive if it is not well designed). The embodied fossil fuel energy in the heavy industrial infrastructure used in traditional activated sludge treatment is much greater than in the construction of a living machine with a large greenhouse, manufacture of plastic tanks, mechanical aerators, pumps and valves among other equipment.
Guterstam contends that traditional facilities require larger capital investment and demand more labor and energy costs than their ecological counterparts. It is difficult to make a generalization about economic comparisons because thus far living machines have only been built as relatively small research and educational experiments. The next step in the development of these systems would be a larger scale ecosystem that has more diversity and higher populations to treat a larger volume of sewage. Until there is an equivalence of scale, economic comparison between the two systems is somewhat awkward and speculative. However, it is safe to say that living machines are ecologically superior.
Conventional wastewater treatment is heavily embedded in our industrial toolkit. A worldwide revolution in wastewater treatment would require an entire industry and profession to make a major disciplinary shift from a focus on "industrial" engineering to "ecological" engineering, applied biology and ecology. Living machines have yet to be made on a comparable scale to conventional treatment plants, and this “biology of scale” could bring benefits or drawbacks in efficiency.
In warm climates, living machines can be outdoors, as the temperature will sustain sufficient biological activity throughout the winter. In temperate climates, a greenhouse is used to keep water temperatures warm so that plants do not winterize. In cold climates supplemental heating may also be necessary.
Living machines use screens,
biofilters, plumbing, large plastic tanks, reed beds, rocks, fans, pumps and other mechanical devices. Every system is tailored to the volume and makeup of the sewage. Some are stand-alone greenhouses, while others are built into larger buildings. John Toddand James Shaw have a patent on a device called an "ecological fluidized bed" which is essentially a pumice-filled tank with a concentric inner tank that contains wetland plants. Pumps rapidly recirculate water to maximize the filtration rate of this device. [John Todd et al. "Ecological fluidized bed method for the treatment of polluted water." US Patent #5486291 ]
*The first step of the process is an
anaerobicsettling tank. This closed anaerobictank serves as a pre-treatment to allow solids to fall out of suspension and precipitate to the bottom of the reactor to reduce the turbidityof the water. A variety of anaerobic bacteria are present in this tank; they generate acids and ferment methane. This step may be unnecessary if the influent has low levels of solids.
*Next, the sewage flows through a
biofilterof bark and humic materials. This gives the influent its first filtration and reduces the odors prevalent in anaerobic conditions.
*The mixture then moves into a series of aerobic tanks. The first tank is a dark, closed-top
aerobicreactor that serves as a transitional step. The next tank is an open-top, aerobic reactor that contains photosynthetic algaethat fix oxygenback into the formerly anoxic, turbid water. This provides oxygenand organic food (dead algae) for biological metabolismand respiration. Microbial communities proliferate, and eventually must consume all of the photosyntheticalgae so that the algae do not choke out macrophytesin later steps.
*Many types of
bacteriaimmobilize pollutant minerals, but certain speciesof bacteria are crucial to nutrientconversion. Specifically, " Nitrosomonas" and " Nitrobacter" work in steps to nitrify ammonia, making it into nitrates, which are available for plant and microbialuptake. These bacteria need calcium carbonateto catalyze this reaction, so managers must maintain sufficient calcium levels in the water. Denitrifying bacteria such as " Pseudomonas fluorescens" convert nitratesinto gaseous nitrogen, which is volatilized in these open aerobic tanks. [Brady, Nyle and Weil. The Nature and Properties of Soil 14th ed. Prentice Hall] Denitrification is the most desirable sink for nitrogen in living machines. [Teal, John. 1997, “Contribution of Marshes and Salt Marshes to Ecological Engineering.” Chapter 16 in C. Etnier and Bjorn Guterstam. Ecological Engineering for Wastewater Treatment, 2nd Ed. CRC Press, Boca Raton.] Protozoa have been shown to be capable of coliformand pathogensuppression. [Pike, E.B. and E.G. Carrington, 1979. The fate of enteric bacteria and pathogens during sewage treatment. In: A. James and L Evison (Eds.). Biological Indicators of Water Quality. John Wiley, London, pp. 2001-2032.] Microbial breakdown is the primary biological treatment of both the conventional activated sludgeprocess as well as these aquatic ecosystem sludge reactors.
*Higher plants are grown
hydroponically in the aerobic tanks and provide multiple services. The most common plant used is water hyacinth("Eicchornia crassipies"), which has filamentous aquatic roots with a high specific area. These feather-like roots provide a stable habitat for microbes, and over time a bacterial biofilmbuilds up around the roots. [Austin, David. “Parallel Performance Comparison Between Aquatic Root Zone and Textile Medium Integrated Fixed-Film Activated Sludge (IFFAS) Wastewater Treatment Systems.”] [Peterson, S.B. and J.M. Teal. 1996, “The role of plants in ecologically engineered wastewater treatment systems.” Ecological Engineering. 6(1-3): 137-148.] Water hyacinth, bulrush and other macrophytes sequester heavy metals. The bodies of these plants can be harvested and burned, and the heavy metals can be chemically isolated to take them out of the environment. "Brassica juncea" growing in waste streams has been found to contain 60% of its dry weight in lead. [Nanda Kumar, P.B.A., V. Dushenkov, H. Motto and I. Raskin, 1995. Phytoextraction: the use of plantsto remove heavy metals from soils. Environ. Sci. Technol., 29: 1232-1238.]
Planktoncarries out multiple functions in the system with varying efficacy. Zooplankton feed on extremely small (<25µm) particles. In juvenile stages they feed on particles smaller than 1 µm. [Austin, David. “Parallel Performance Comparison Between Aquatic Root Zone and Textile Medium Integrated Fixed-Film Activated Sludge (IFFAS) Wastewater Treatment Systems"] Conventional waste treatment cannot process these fine suspended solids. [Guterstam, Bjorn. 1996. Ecological engineering for wastewater and its application in New England and Sweden. Ecological Engineering 6 (96- 108).] Although zooplanktondo consume these fine particles, which are difficult for conventional treatment systems to process, the placement of planktonin the system is more valuable as a trophic link. Plankton can eat microbes, which are abundant in the system, and the planktonis an ideal food for filter feeding fish and mollusks. This food chain transfers biomass to higher trophic levels and increases the diversity and complexity of the ecosystem. John Todd thinks that “Since zooplanktoncan exchange the volume of a natural body of water several times per day it is difficult to overstate their importance in ecological engineering.” [Todd, John and B. Josephson. “The Design of Living Technologies for Waste Treatment.” Ecological Engineering 6 (1996) 109-136.]
*According to Björn Guterstam, another one of the most well-published and experienced ecological engineers, this theoretical role has not been as successful in practice. He concedes that
phytoplanktonpopulations have been limited by toxic and somewhat deoxidized water at the bottom of tanks, as well as light limitations. Phytoplanktonare primary producers, which provide food for larger zooplanktonspecies, so the zooplanktonpopulation drops with its photosyntheticcounterpart. [Guterstam, Bjorn. 1997, “Ecological Engineering for Wastewater Treatment: Theoretical Foundations and Practical Realities.” Chapter 7 in C. Etnier and Björn Guterstam. Ecological Engineering for Wastewater Treatment, 2nd Ed. CRC Press, Boca Raton.] Because these principles have been implemented only on a small scale, these systems have a lowered buffering capacity due to issues of scale and separation from the macroecosystem, even though genetic and functional diversity is encouraged.
Aquaculturecan take place in more dilute tanks downstream after the eutrophication-causing contaminants have been ameliorated. Snailsslide along the tank walls and graze on slime and sludge buildup, cleaning the tank. This self-regulation improves light penetration, which stimulates photosynthetic forms of algae, bacteria and plankton. Filter feeders sift through large volumes of water each day and consume the bacteria and plankton that are small enough to pass through. Molluskssuch as mussels and snails, as well as some fish, are filter feeders. Detritus-feeding fish consume larger particles of suspended biosolids. Herbivorous fish are excluded from tanks where macrophytes carry out useful functions (such as biofilmhosting), but when plants are eventually harvested from the system, this plant tissue can be fed to a tank of herbivorous fish for aquaculture production. [Sifa, Li. 1997 “Aquaculture and its role in ecological wastewater management.” Chapter 3 in C. Etnier and Bjorn Guterstam. Ecological Engineering for Wastewater Treatment, 2nd Ed. CRC Press, Boca Raton.]
*A single "
Anodonta" freshwater clam can filter as much as 40 litres/day of water, absorbing colloidal materials and other suspended solids at a removal rate of 99.5%. Many freshwater clams are in danger of extinction, in part because some have gillsthat perform poorly in polluted environments. [Karnaukhov, V.N., 1979. “The role of filtrator mollusks rich in carotenoid in the self-cleaning of freshwaters.” Symp. Biol. Hung., 19: 151-167.] Since some of these clams can sequester colloids from streams or lakes, this provides an ecosystem service by slowing the erosion of soil colloids. Do clams aid in nutrient retention of their home streambeds? Humans can strike up a symbiotic relationship with the clam genera "Unlo" and " Anodonta" by providing a clean habitat (when the water reaches the clam tank it is cleaner than some of their wild habitats). In exchange for a good home, the clams could aid humans by filtering colloids and suspended solids out of our wastewater. It is yet to be determined if the clams break up these colloids at all or if it is feasible to recycle clam compost back into field (which increases cation exchange capacity—-an agricultural benefit). Ecological engineering supports symbiotic relations between different species to serve the needs of humans as well as promoting the health of the ecosystem.
In a 2000 report to the USEPA on a South Burlington, Vermont, living machine,
Ocean Arks Internationaloutlined five key areas which could shape the future of this field. ["Ecological Design: Towards A Post-Engineering Perspective." http://www.oceanarks.org/ecodesign/postengineering/] The foremost “possible breakthrough areas” is the ongoing classification of species by the biochemical, biological and ecological roles they play and how those roles effect other species under the context of wastewater treatment. The breakthrough would be to study the function of organisms in hopes of being able to more readily and successfully manage overall ecosystem function. Browne et al. (in press) have looked into the structuring of aquatic systems for water treatment. [Browne, B., R.A.F. Seaton & P. Jeffrey, In press. “Some propositions on the structuring of aquatic ecologies for water treatment.” Journal of Environmental Science and Health.]
Trophic management is used to influence entire systems by selective
predationbased on diagnosing an imbalance and analyzing the web of ecosystem classifications, roles and relationships. This management technique exploits the close interconnections of the food web, trophic cascade, to send a ripple down through the living community. This stewardship technique is predicated upon an advanced understanding of the conditions in the ecosystem and modeling the dynamic relationships down the trophic cascade. The trophic cascade in lakes has been researched by Carpenter and Hall. [ Carpenter, S. R. & J.F. Kitchell, eds. 1993. The Trophic Cascade in Lakes. Cambridge University Press.]
Living machines have been composed largely in closed greenhouses which can only react minimally with the surrounding ecosystem, and where populations have been heavily managed to foster equilibrium. If a living machine were subject to the ecology of invasions, new species would be free to colonize the system, and natural selection would dictate the success of any species. This would be true ecosystem self-design and self-management partnered with human stewardship.
Photosynthetic changes, specifically the control of light exposure is another powerful management practice capable of slowing or accelerating primary production. This is similar to the idea of trophic management, except that it manipulates the other end of the food web.
Finally, there is economic potential for methane generation, market crops such as
flowers, fish, tomatoes, lettuceand other foods tolerant of hydroponicconditions, useful plants or medicinals. Combined with the revenue from wastewater treatment these services could turn living machines into pollution sinks and economic generators. ["Ecological Design: Towards A Post-Engineering Perspective." http://www.oceanarks.org/ecodesign/postengineering/] It is well documented that a small, well-planned system in a good location can be economically viable. If a living machine can subsist in Alaska, it seems reasonable that ecologically engineered wastewater treatmentcan be tailored to work smoothly in warm developing countries.
Public sanitation and equitable access to water in very poor countries are grave problems. Living machines could be a low-capital approach to treating and recycling water, but skilled biologists may be a limited resource as well. A brick-pool living machine was built by Americans in Auroville, India. [Architecture for Humanity, "Design Like You Give a Damn." p.294]
List of Living Machines
Oberlin College, Ohio
Berea College, Kentucky http://www.berea.edu/sens/ecovillage/ecomachine/default.asp
South Burlington, Vermont
*Islandwood Education Center, WA: http://www.islandwood.org/default.php
* [http://www.humboldt.edu/~ere_dept/marsh/ Arcata Marsh] , California
*see Living Designs Group, http://www.livingdesignsgroup.com/eng-project-master-list/
BedZED, Sutton, London, England (not operating currently)
*Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples, Florida (http://corkscrew.audubon.org/Information/LivingMachine.html)
*Clatsop Community College - MERTS site, Astoria, Oregon http://www.clatsopcollege.com/livingmachine
*Ohio State University, Columbus, OH - Dairy Wastewater Treatment
* [http://www.korte-organica.hu/hungarian/technologies/living_machine.html Harbor Park (Budapest, Hungary)]
*PAWS, Inc., Muncie, Indiana
Conserve School, Land O Lakes, Wisconsin
*Darrow School - New Lebanon, NY (http://www.darrowschool.org/page.cfm?p=34)
*EVA Lanxmeer - Coevorden, Netherlands (http://www.eva-lanxmeer.nl/docs/bebouwing.html)
*Sharon I-89 Northbound Rest Area - Sharon, Vermont
* [http://www.oceanarks.org Ocean Arks International, the best source for reliable, detailed information on the topic]
* [http://www.livingmachines.com/ Living Machines, Inc. Website]
* [http://www.rain-barrel.net/living-machine.html Living Machines]
* [http://www.rps.psu.edu/0009/machine.html Living Machines article]
* [http://www.ecological-engineering.com Solar Aquatics Systems, the original Living Machine with transparent tanks]
* [http://www.enviroeducation.com/interviews/john-todd/ Interview with Dr. John Todd]
* [http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC42/Todd.htm Interview with Nancy Todd, "Living Machines use waste water, sunlight, plants, and fish to produce abundant fresh food", In Context, Fall 1995]
* [http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC35/Guterson.htm "Putting human waste back in its place: at the bottom of the food chain", In Context, 1993]
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