Biowall Benefits to a Lab Ecosystem

A friend was recently describing her trip to the Peruvian side of the Amazon rain forest to me. She said that two things strike you in the rainforest. The noise from all the animals...and the oxygen rich air. Can you imagine how good it feels breathing in that environment?! Well, it happens that there is a method of indoor air purification that replicates this experience - a Biowall.

Let's go over our regular breathing environment. The average American spend almost 90% of their time indoors. Volatile organic compound levels become higher indoors because VOCs are generated by building materials, furnishings, cleaning agents, etc. To counteract this situation, buildings run air ventilation and air conditioning systems that dilute indoor air with outdoor air. The average scientist is spending most of indoor time, inside a lab. Labs additionally rely on chemical hoods to vent out higher concentrations of VOCs. We use a good amount of energy to purify indoor air.

Drexel University has the largest biowall in North America. Contrast this biowall with the typical indoor air purification system. There are 1500 plants rooted into a five story high, 2 layer wall of inorganic, porous textile substrate that recirculates water and nutrients. Plant root associated microbes degrade and utilize carbon from VOCs, in a process called biofiltration. Air is pulled into the biowall by fans behind it, and is forwarded through the building’s air handling system achieving an 80% air quality improvement and a 30% reduction in energy consumption. The energy consumption is reduced because the biofiltration method doesn't need to re-condition the air. This is how the visual beauty of a biowall is matched by its function, as an alternative method for indoor air purification.

 Figure S1 Indoor-Biofilter Growth and Exposure to Airborne Chemicals Drive Similar Changes in Plant Root Bacterial Communities. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 2014 Aug; 80(16): 4805–4813.

Figure S1 Indoor-Biofilter Growth and Exposure to Airborne Chemicals Drive Similar Changes in Plant Root Bacterial Communities. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 2014 Aug; 80(16): 4805–4813.

Drexel university investigators have open access published their work on the speedy changes observed across microbial populations in response to VOCs. They used next generation sequencing samples over time from different biowalls, soil grown plants, various plant species. Check out their results which support further research into VOC degraders as beneficial microbes in indoor ecosystems. Afterward, you might find it uplifting to incorporate Rubber tree plants, Ficus, or Pothos ivy into your own lab space….for some “labconscious” air purification.  

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