The Living Machine Finishedby Lauren Viera (2/18/00)
Oberlin received a priceless gift for Valentine's Day this year. Its name is the Living Machine, and visiting lecturer David Austin introduced the Machine to its new community in a lecture at Hallock Auditorium on Tuesday. Austin, an engineer with Living Technologies in Burlington, Vermont, has been a key player in the research and development of Oberlin's Living Machine, which is located in the new Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies.
About 50 students and faculty attended Austin's lecture, in which he explained that Oberlin's Living Machine - a waste water treatment system designed to streamline the school's current sewer system into one that is environmentally-sound - was officially "turned on" on Monday. Students like double-degree fifth-year Marylee Haughwout have been working on related projects since the beginning of Winter Term. "We've been learning about the processes of how the Living Machine works to teach it to other people." About a dozen other students have been assigned to closely monitor the different parts of the Machine and teach future students how to use it.
A variety of designated plants with specific biological criteria important to the Living Machine's ability to function arrived via FedEx two weeks ago, and were installed just before the Spring semester commenced. Austin explained that Feb. 15 was the photosynthetic compensation point, as far as the Machine's sun, water, and biological elements falling in sync to function properly. The plants are predicted to grow approximately one foot per week for several months, and will probably grow increasingly stronger as they mature. While the plants are presently contained in their respective filter tanks, some consideration to the aesthetics of the Living Machine room has been given. The mature plants will grow up to fill the room, giving it the appearance of a lush greenhouse. Tuesday, as Austin panned through slide after slide of enthusiastic students tending to the new growth, he said, "As you can see, everyone is happy to work with plants."
Austin said that we have to ask ourselves whether we wish to see the Living Machine to be revolutionary, or evolutionary, adding a whole new dimension of ecology to conventional engineering. "Plants are the operators," he said. "Humans will only have to do about one to one-and-a half hours of work a week."
Oberlin's waste will follow the steps outlined in the accompanying flowchart. The entire process of refuse from toilet to the environmental safe deposit takes about five days. Austin explained that there are no safeguards; because the system is designed to flush everything clean into the ground, any harmful chemicals poured down the drain would destroy the Living Machine's process. But on the other hand, the plants' root structures act as refuges for chemicals and bacteria, and would help to absorb any toxins that might enter the stream.
As exciting as the new installation of Oberlin's Living Machine is, there are still many obvious concerns Austin has for the success of the system. He stressed that in order for it to serve as an example for future systems, we must not only rely on the success of the Machine, but also tend to our own daily living patterns, and become more ecologically-conscious. Austin explained that ecological engineering is "a partnership between society and nature for the benefit of both. We need to understand that the problem is real," he said. "Serve nature and humanity. That's all I have to say."
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
Contact us with your comments and suggestions.