How excited am I allowed to be about this, without getting sectioned?  Ah, who cares.  The video above shows the operation of a computer controlled bioreactor and integrated vending machine for spirulina – a form of blue-green algae and all round science celebrity!

The vending machine is called HABERLANDT, named, I assume for the turn-of-the-century Austrian botanist, Gottlieb Haberlandt, who posited that “Theoretically, all plant cells are able to give rise to a complete plant.”  The connection being, I assume, that spirulina, being a variety of algae (which isn’t officially a ‘plant’ but is it’s own major branch of life) is a single cell organism, but that can reproduce so fast, efficiently and well, that it will happily double its population every 24hrs, given space, food and light.

A bioreactor (which sounds wonderfully dangerous) is simply a vessel that will contain the algae while it breeds – you can spot the bioreactor in the video above as the source of the unearthly green glow and perpetual gurgling and bubbling sounds.  Spirulina is an incredible photosynthesizer and the vast amounts of chlorophyll is the source of the green, it glows because it’s being lit with which to power that photosynthesis, and it’s bubbling because algae needs carbon dioxide to grow.  It is actually scrubbing carbon dioxide back into oxygen all the while it’s growing – making it an attractive line of investigation for space-journey food and air supplies since the 1960’s, and underwater self-sufficiency more recently.  I’m having a go at growing my own algae right now, using a super-cheap bioreactor at home.

Now, that would be pretty cool on it’s own – but the vending machine uses a handmade peristaltic pump (imagine an automatic toothpaste squeezer) to dispense the algae-water mix, ensuring that there’s limited opportunities for contamination with conventional moving part pumps.  This dispensing (and all the other moving parts and readouts) are controlled using the popular Arduino electronics platform.  Then it uses techniques from molecular gastronomy to spherify the dispensed algae – mixing it with alginate to form a goo, and then dropping it into a bath of calcium chloride to then solidify on the outside.  The result is generally a soft-on-the-inside, firm but bouncy on the outside, ball of liquid – in this case, nutritious algae.  Annoyingly though, as spirulina is considered a health food supplement, most recipes that use it are both vegan and boring – I hear it tastes like nori seaweed (which I like), and you can sprinkle it on chips/fries.

The vending machine then rinses, and dispenses, the packaging-free ball of green, awesome, goop.

Which is incredibly cool and definitely from the future, obviously.  What do you mean, you disagree?  Why are those men here with straightjackets?  Where are we going, Doctor?  No!  I’m from the future!  The future!!

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