Photosynthetic City – 1st Place URBED/RIBA “Energy Revolution” Competition 2003

An early indicator of ORE’s future, paring scientific research with design, the idea for Photosynthetic City was born on page 426 of an early white paper developed for the UK parliament on how to combat climate change.  Thomas Kosbau read a passage about a burgeoning technology in laboratories, wherein hydrogen was being produced organically as a byproduct of cellular respiration in green algae.  Seeing the design potential he and fellow Architect Tyson Gillard created a winning entry for an international competition titled “Energy Revolution. ” Sited in Manchester England, Energy Revolution called for onsite energy production in a 5 city block, new development.

As an architectural element this “second skin” of hydrogen producing algae panels creates a visual quilted mosaic of color. The Housing Units create fresh water and reduce carbon emissions, without requiring the occupant to change their energy-consuming habits.

ORE developed a unitized algae panel for a more efficient, less polluting energy alternative to today’s photovoltaics in building design. Using current research at Colorado’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we chose a strain of Chlamydamonas Reinhardtii (CHL), which produces hydrogen more efficiently with genetic modifications in the hydrogenase enzyme, making it a viable source of energy production.

Our area of research is modulating this technology into a unitized framework that can be incorporated into new or existing structures such as buildings, bridges, and highway walls. These algae panels would allow for local, biologically-produced clean energy to be available in urban and rural environments. Structures built or retrofitted with algae panels would function like plants in nature, creating their own energy through photosynthesis. On-site production eliminates loss of energy in transmission, thereby reducing waste. We see this not simply as a development in ecological fuel sources, but as a revolution in the structure of our fuel supply system and a potential shift in environmental design.

Two key strengths C. Reinhardtii exhibits are an exponential growth rate and natural hardiness. These factors allow for limitless algae cultures to be quickly created and replenished once they are starved of oxygen and sulfur, thus making it biologically feasible to farm hydrogen in urban environments.

The Hydral panel brings energy production to the consumer. Each panel is a modular 1 meter x 2 meter x .1 meter panels of hydrogen producing algae to be placed in an urban environment such as today’s photo-voltaic. These green panels do more than photo-voltaic, however, and are nowhere near as energy intensive to create, nor carry dangerous heavy metals.


The City Block is literally a green oasis amongst a concrete and steel backdrop. Planted ramps meet public plazas, offering continuous open circulation to the park-like area above the commercial plinth, in which shops and shoppers are cooled by the planted roof. The housing units are oriented to maximize passive cooling in summer and solar heat gain in winter. Below the commercial plinth, hydrogen-car park and refuel.

Using the genetically modified algae, a building could be free of fossil fuel energy consumption.




Once the cultures are sealed in an anaerobic condition, starved of sulfur, the algae’s normal photosynthesis-respiration relationship is thrown into imbalance, causing a cellular net consumption of oxygen, further resulting in a condition that immediately elicits hydrogen production.



Technology: Algae Wall Panel System
Area: 7 Hectares
Design Team: Thomas Kosbau, Tyson Gillard, Josh Chang
Awards: First Place,  URBED / Royal Institute of British Architects’ International Competition “Energy Revolution” 2003