The Need - to provide basic functions, such as water, energy, food and waste processing, to the world’s rapidly expanding cities in a more effective and regenerative way.
The Solution - a network of decentralised ‘urban metabolic hubs’ that convert organic feedstocks into useful resources, and also provide a technology platform for other urban infrastructure applications.
What makes this smarter - the hubs are modular, connected, and are optimised by feedback. The treatment process uses super-active bacterial colonies on biofilms rather than in solution, reducing land requirements and operating costs.
The result - the value of land freed up can be five to six times the project cost; urban infrastructure that is based on a modern understanding of biology and digital science, integrated into the urban fabric rather than isolated from it.
A rapidly urbanised world
The challenge of providing 21st century cities with their basic needs may not be met through 20th century solutions. Modern cities are much larger and more complex. They strive to provide secure water, food and energy supplies in the face of rapid growth, shifting demographics, climate change, more stringent regulation, and increasing competition for land.
Itvan Kenyeres, a creative ecologist from Hungary, believes that the solution lies in a completely different approach to the large and centralised single function facility of the past. Itvan has founded a company called Biopolus, to roll out a new type of modern urban infrastructure called an ‘urban metabolic hub’. These are compact decentralised units that are linked together as part of an ‘operating system of engineered urban ecosystems’. By following this approach Biopolus claims it will be possible to “close metabolic loops within urban boundaries”, thus relieving pressure on our rural areas allowing them to recover.
The insights that underpin Biopolus
It has been observed that every city, from a megacity of 35 million like Tokyo, to a small city of 90,000 like Bath, is made of ‘urban cells’ each with a fairly consistent population of between 10 - 20,000. Biopolus sees a way of integrating all these basic functions into a new type of ‘special organ’ (Kenyeres has a fondness for using biological language to visualise cities) - the urban metabolic hub.
The central technology in the Biopolus hubs are ‘biomakeries’, mini biorefineries that transform wastewater and organic waste into clean water, energy, food and other useful materials. The hubs are scalable from cellular to ecosystem, can operate standalone or in a network, are modular, platform based, and therefore extendable in both capacity and functionality. The core function of each hub is to convert organic feedstocks (e.g. wastewater streams) into valuable resources, by passing through multiple bio-reactors, designed and operated using predictive software algorithms.
The evolution of Kenyeres’ idea came from almost twenty years running a company that built over a hundred wastewater treatment systems. The way these systems functioned was based on a startling insight: bacteria behave in a completely different way when they are coated on a medium (called a ‘biofilm’) than when they are floating in solution, for example in sludge.
Applying this insight, Kenyeres found that by coating first natural roots, and later on proprietary biotextile roots, with bacterial films, it was possible to increase the number of bacterial species and therefore the rate of waste breakdown as well as reducing metabolic oxygen demand. By creating a more optimal set of conditions for bacteria to thrive, this yielded two major advantages. Firstly, the urban footprint required for wastewater treatment is significantly reduced; and secondly the energy demand for aeration (which can account for 50 - 75% of overall plant demand) falls steeply due to reduced bacterial oxygen consumption.
Smaller and integrated
Biopolus’ vision is a network of vibrant and aesthetically pleasing community hubs. The effect will be to shift public perception of wastewater treatment plants away from ‘no go zones’ to energetic innovation hubs, creating facilities that are an attractive and integral part of the city fabric (see image).
Biopolus works with partners who provide off the shelf ‘apps’ which can be slotted into the hubs, such as modules for anaerobic digestion, water re-use and aeroponic food production.
The community aspect – very much absent from a traditional sewage works – is provided by additional modules where people can come to buy food, eat, socialise, learn and even access services such as bathrooms, laundry facilities and healthcare. Such a vision could be realised in a place like the southern Japanese city of Kikyushu where Biopolus recently undertook a study to replace the city’s ageing infrastructure. Their proposal pointed to a 95% reduction in land requirement for basic service provision, thus releasing valuable urban space for public amenity, recreational, educational and entertainment features.
These additional functions are possible because Biopolus’ super efficient (biofilm enabled) metabolic reactors occupy on average 60% less, and in some cases up to 94% less area than traditional systems, thus freeing up expensive inner city land. Indeed land value optimisation is one of Biopolus' strongest selling points. According to company's Chief Commercial officer, Frank Marton, the value of land freed up by a metabolic hub can be as much as five or six times the cost of the project. The benefits then extend to the operating period, as energy costs are 35% lower than standard solutions.
Biopolus’ ambitious ideas have taken a little time to take hold due to the inherent conservatism of municipal decision makers. This hesitation is understandable if one considers the consequences of such a critical technology failing in a highly populated area. However there are now at least three Biopolus installations under construction, one in the Netherlands for a Trappist brewery and two in China for a municipal client. It is hoped that as the technology is proven under real conditions, the obvious economic, environmental and social benefits advantages of such a system means that the number of hubs will, just like cell growth, expand rapidly.
As Kenyeres points out, polus in Latin means the ‘pivot’, the inference being that Biopolus could be the swivel point moving from a linear economy to one that is regenerative and circular.
- Commercial Launch 2015
- HQ in Budapest, Hungary
- Number of staff: 16
- Number of installations: 3 under construction in China and one in the Netherlands (set for handover this summer)
- Key partners: CPG Consultants (SE Asia), Metito, Ion Exchange (India)