The Living Machine

Jeff Wolovitz
September 01, 2000

A living machine. Sounds suspiciously dangerous. Science fiction is full of those confused computers who threaten astronauts' lives and rebellious robots that require Arnold Schwarzenegger-types to save the human race.

But at the Penn State Center for Sustainability, a living machine is not a fictional antagonist. In fact, it's the opposite. It's here to save the day.

When the Class of 2000 voted to restore the greenhouse on Old Botany Building as its gift to Penn State, the Center's vision of an ecologically sound water-treatment facility became a reality.

A Living Machine (capital letters, it's a patented invention) is a series of tanks teeming with live plants, trees, grasses and algae, koi and goldfish, tiny freshwater shrimp, snails, and a diversity of microorganisms and bacteria. Each tank is a different mini-ecosystem designed to eat or break down waste. The process takes about four days to turn mucky water crystal clear. It is chemical-free, odor-free (with the exception perhaps of the sweet fragrance of flowers), and, compared to conventional waste treatment, it costs less financially and ecologically.

drawing of anaerobic cycle beginning at Old Botany

The class gift greenhouse will contain a Living Machine designed to treat the effluent from the greenhouse and Old Botany, which houses the College of Engineering's Science, Technology, and Society program. Smaller Living Machines linked to the main ecosystem will be used to research the ability of these systems to break down toxins in water, repair aquatic ecosystems damaged by acid rain or acid mine drainage, and generate income-producing flowers, compost, or fish.

The Center for Sustainability is collaborating with Ocean Arks International, a Vermont-based not-for-profit that has been designing Living Machines for over ten years. In February, the Center brought Michael Shaw, director of Ocean Arks, to Penn State for a weeklong design session. Shaw worked with my STS class, Projects in Sustainable Living, and a studio design class that brings together students in architecture, architectural engineering, and landscape architecture. The machine we designed will handle up to 700 gallons a day of waste water from the 15 STS faculty and staff members, as well as the 50 to 100 visitors and students a day who pass through Old Botany. The machine's intricate ecologies remove ammonia (from urine), solid excrement, toilet paper, and soap, as well as chemicals that might find their way down the drain.

Ocean Arks is providing Penn State with consulting and training to build this Living Machine, but the Center for Sustainability must provide the ecosystems.

Jack Ray, the 1999-2000 University Student Government's "green" senator, has been assisting the Center's various projects both before and after receiving his bachelor's degree last spring. He explained to me what we'll do. Many of the plants will be donated from a seven-year-old Living Machine operating in nearby Julian Woods, a land-trust community of 13 families. Goldfish can come from a pet shop. But the bacterial communities will come straight from the local environment. "Scrounge would be a good word for it," Ray said. "We'll go to different ponds and scoop up a few bucketfuls of muck from the bottom of each. Whichever organisms are best suited to the function of our Living Machine will survive." Ray calls the process "seeding" or "inoculating" the system. He and other students used fish tanks and a water cooler to build and seed three "desktop model" Living Machines in order to learn the ropes of operating the system and to use them for demonstrations at schools and on campus.

drawing of aerobic reactor cycle

Seeding is a consummate example of the ecological design on which Living Machines are based. Hovering over a table covered with photos of lush green Living Machines, Tania Slawecki, an assistant professor with the Center for Sustainability, explained, "The concept is that nature is a lot smarter than humans, and the ingenuity built into natural systems is far more complex than we can begin to understand." Slawecki, with a bachelor's in astrophysics (inspiration for what I can do with my astrophysics degree), and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering, has spent two years at the Center for Sustainability. She researches the ways our society succeeds and fails to live within the finite resources of nature. Living Machines function within those limits by operating chemical-free and with energy derived directly through photosynthesis. "With ecological design, we in effect allow nature to do its thing in response to the different stimuli and inputs.

"These are smart machines because they are able to adjust, almost as needed, to the different stresses that the system will be subjected to." To adapt to changes in pH, toxins, sunlight, temperature, or load, the system must be very robust, which requires extraordinary complexity.

As John Todd, the inventor of Living Machines, said in his keynote address at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Conference at Penn State in February, "Ecological design leaves this difficult planning to nature's three billion years of testing through trial and error." He has scattered over 20 large industrial Living Machines around the world, with smaller machines operating in schools, rest stops, and communities. Ecological design allows these to succeed even though many of the natural processes at work remain rather mysterious.

Escorting Michael Shaw, the director of Todd's company, to my STS class one day last February, I asked him how much of the details he and his associates really know. Shaw was hustling down the hallway, pulling behind him a small suitcase with one of those extendable handles. I felt like we were running to catch a plane. The true workhorses of a Living Machine, he said, are the bacteria and microbes. At Ocean Arks, researchers have closely identified 30 or so microorganisms that are the "major players." But these are only the tip of the iceberg. For an industrial Living Machine, such as the ones at Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream plant, the Body Shop bottling facility, or the M&M/Mars candy bar factory, Shaw and his team visited the factory and scrounged whatever microorganisms were living off the waste in the pipes there. Nature works out the details. I found the whole process very Zen.

drawing of quiescent clarifier cycle beginning underground

"That's what's so amazing," said Olena Welhasch, a senior in English. Ecology does the work for us. She reminded me of the situation we learned about at the South Burlington, Vermont, Living Machine, which treats ten percent of the town's sewage. "All this gasoline came through and killed the plants in the first tank, Welhasch said. The operators were really worried, but they had to keep the experiment running. The plants ended up regenerating after the gas passed through, and the following tanks were not affected. Nature has such a huge potential to self-organize and self-repair." Welhasch has been working with the desktop model Living Machines and has planned demonstrations with Ray and another undergraduate, Erin English. The two women co-authored an article about their experiences for the periodical Annals of the Earth, published by Ocean Arks International.

English said that because ecological design makes Living Machines so adaptable, they can be applied to diverse problems: sewage treatment, industrial waste, surface water pollution. "They have such an amazing power to heal water," she told me one afternoon in the Forest Resource Lab greenhouse,"where the desktop models live. English, a senior in chemical engineering who interned with Ocean Arks in Burlington last summer, was feeding the Living Machine: Because there is no waste entering the model, the ecosystems need a source of nutrients. That week's magic potion? A mixture of grated zucchini, apple butter, and a little bit of urine for ammonia. "Instead of complaining about polluted water, we can do something about it," she said.

One pollutant Slawecki and her students hope the Living Machine can remove from water is MTBE (Methyl-Tertiary-Butyl-Ethylene), a highly toxic, highly water-soluble gasoline additive. MTBE began appearing in water supplies across the country after its introduction as an emission-reducing agent to meet the standards of the Clean Air Act of 1990. On January 31, USA Today reported that over 7,000 wells in New Hampshire were contaminated with MTBE; the television program 60 Minutes, in a January 16th feature on MTBE, went to a small town in California that had economically collapsed because of MTBE-contaminated well-water. "If we found that Living Machines could effectively break down MTBE in our water supply, then we could go to reservoirs and install what they call Lake Restorers," Slawecki explained. "They're these floating rafts which have Living Machines in them. Water circulates through the rafts and the plants on board provide healthy habitats for microorganisms to break down the toxins. Any place that is a pooling supply, especially reservoirs, is a good place to put these Living Machines. We wouldn't need to evacuate whole towns anymore in response to this." While the EPA hopes to enact the Toxic Substance Control Act within the next year to phase out the use of MTBE, it is unclear how long MTBE will remain in underground water supplies.

drawing of quiescent clarifier cycle ending at greenhouse

"A university needs to pioneer ideas and practices to inspire the population," said Barbara Anderson, the founder and director of the Center for Sustainability, when I asked her why she thought we needed a Living Machine at Penn State. Anderson, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Penn State, is currently interested in the interplay of art, nature, and spirituality and its effect on worldviews. "I'm not sure that the environment and environmental health is a high enough priority at Penn State, and I would like to see that changed."

Anderson, whose computerless office was lit only by dim afternoon sunlight streaming in her window, continued that the undergraduates involved with the Center for Sustainability showed a lot of interest, pushing the project forward. "The people who are going to inherit the results of today's research are the undergraduates who are studying here at Penn State now," Anderson said. "And it is certainly they who have the deepest investment. It makes sense that they have some say in what their world is going to look like and the research that is going to produce that world."

For me, being involved with the Living Machine has altered my understanding of what technology means and its capacity to merge with nature. I used to want to be an astrophysicist and study what I thought was nature at her finest. I'd look at those beautiful Hubble Space Telescope images and want to know what could be going on at the edges of the universe, at the beginning of time. But since I've been involved with the Living Machine, I've found a new interest in nature. I look around at our electrically plastified post-industrial culture and wonder what other parts of it could be replaced by natural, ecologically designed systems. Ecological design just feels right. It works. Nature is so incredibly efficient. More than we could ever design. That's nature at her finest.

The side of the Living Machine experiment I am most excited about is its potential impact. Could Penn State pioneer the future of wastewater treatment by using Living Machines for its everyday operational and research wastes? Might five or ten years of operation of this first Living Machine spark enough interest for the community to build a 100,000-gallon-a-day municipal one to meet the demands of our growing town and university? Will environmentally innovative thinking spread? I wonder what seeds the Old Botany Living Machine will sow.

Erin English (chemical engineering) and Jack Ray (B.A. in letters, arts, and sciences) continue to work with Living Machines at Penn State. Olena Welhasch (honors English) and Jeff Wolovitz (honors astronomy) graduated in May 2000. Their advisers on this project were: Barbara Anderson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Sustainability and an instructor in the College of Engineering's Science, Technology, and Society Program, Old Botany Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2223; and Tania Slawecki, Ph.D., an assistant professor with the Center for Sustainability, 133 Willard Bldg.; 865-2224; For more information on Living Machines, see the Center for Sustainability's Web site at The Penn State Living Machine is funded by the Class 2000 gift and the Class of 1950. The Living Machine is a registered trademark of Ocean Arks International.

Last Updated September 01, 2000