Oberlin College, OH Living Machine

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Oberlin College, OH, US

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Type: Program

Status: Established in 2000

Source File: http://www.oberlin.edu/ajlc/systems_lm_1.html


Start-up and Development of the Living Machine Ecosystem
As the Center was opening in January of 2000, David Austin from Living Technologies (designers of the Living Machine), Oberlin faculty and twelve Oberlin students prepared the Living Machine for use.

They began by filling the newly installed tanks with city water, checking equipment for proper connections, and familarizing themselves with the layout of the system and its processes. Students attended several training sessions during which the workings and underlying principles of the Living Machine were reviewed and discussed. Standard wastewater analysis methods were also perfected in order to monitor the health of the future LM ecosystem.

Living Machines are composed of a lot more than just a set of pumps, tanks and pipes, however. It is life that directly cleans and conditions the water for reuse. Therefore, a Living Machine's active components -- plants, bacteria, and other aquatic organisms -- had to be grown, rather than built in place. The life that started the Living Machine came from many places:

  • Activated sewage sludge that harbors abundant microbes
  • Sediments from area marshes and ponds provided bacteria, protozoa, and other aquatic microorganisms
  • Freeze-dried bacteria
  • Clippings from plants grown in the Living Machine in Burlington, VT
  • Transplants from local marshes and ponds

Like natural ecosystems, Living Machines are designed to be self-organizing. That means that we simply put the bacteria and plants into the system, and they establish themselves in communities where survival is most favorable.

After initial plantings and bacterial inoculations in January and February of 2000, the biological systems of the Living Machine developed throughout the spring. The plant roots began forming a fine, dense mat, an excellent substrate for microbial populations.

Life began to emerge in all corners of the living machine: Snails thrived in every tank, filling up the rims at the water's edge then subsided after a few weeks; of a group of a dozen goldfish introduced to the Clarifier, four of the heartiest survived to grow to very large size; and a pair of Anoles, a species of Chameleon, was introduced.

The start-up period was also characterized by anaerobic events as microbiological communities stabilized. The living machine was helped through this period with sludge additions and dog food feeding during the first few months. The machine became fully operational -- that is, began operating within designed norms -- in the latter half of May 2000. Since the biological systems are now in place, such a long startup period will not be required again.

Living Machine & water use
Freshwater available for human use constitutes only a tiny fraction of the Earth's water supply. It is continuously moved in the solar-powered hydrologic cycle that allows for its re-use -- as long as humans do not overload it with nondegradable wastes or withdraw it from underground supplies faster than it is replenished.

Modern buildings are characterized by one way flows of matter. Clean water and stored energy in the form of food enter buildings. Solid and liquid wastes leave and require treatment in order to prevent harm to downstream ecosystems. The AJLC was designed to mimic the closed cycles of natural ecosystems through restoration of native aquatic ecosystems (wetland pond) and onsite wastewater treatment and re-use.

The Living Machine is an ecologically engineered system that combines elements of conventional wastewater technology with the purification processes of wetland ecosystems to treat and recycle the building's wastewater. The system is designed to remove organic wastes, nutrients, and pathogens, which can damage human and environmental health if discharged. Water cleaned by the Living Machine is reused in the building's toilets and landscape.

The Living Machine also serves as a valuable research laboratory and educational tool for students and faculty. A team of student operators and lab assistants maintain and monitor the treatment performance of the Living Machine. This dedicated group's responsibilities include monitoring of water quality parameters, horticultural and pest management, general cleaning and organization, maintainence of data collection equipment, sample collection and assessment of water quality in the laboratory, and educating each other on the structure and mechanisms of the Living Machine. Operators also attend weekly planning and educational meetings.