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An App for Talking to Trees and Other Projects by the Shukhov Lab

© Shukhov Lab

One of the Shukhov Lab’s most significant projects is its master’s programme in Prototyping Future Cities. Graduates of the programme told HSE University Life about innovations they have developed to help preserve the environment, promote balanced growth, and improve cities.

Anemokinetics: Turning Tree Branch Movement into Energy

Author: Alexander Altenkov

Academic Supervisor: Elena Mitrofanova, architect

Today, the main sources of alternative energy are naturally occurring processes: solar radiation, wind, and tidal movements in the ocean. But to use these resources for energy production, you need a complicated costly infrastructure that may cause harm to the surrounding ecosystems.

My project offers a new source of energy and a less harmful alternative to artificial constructions with the use of living tree branches. I designed a mechanism that transforms the repetitive oscillatory movements of tree branches into electricity. The mechanism consists of a piezo disc fixed between a moveable rod and a static element, which fastens the mechanism to the branch. Electricity is generated by wind flow or animal activity on the branches.

The field tests have shown that each branch movement cycle generates a charge equal to 3.6 volts with a current of 0.1 amperes and a duration of 200 milliseconds. This means that in order to charge a 600 mAh battery, 43,000 movement cycles are needed, or 6 hours.

Sometimes, installing outdoor lighting in dark areas of the city and parks requires trees to be cut down. Anemokinetics may help solve this problem and become an alternative to complicated and expensive lighting infrastructure.

Smart Nature: The App that Allows You to Talk to Trees

Author: Valeria Miftakhova

Academic Supervisor: Alexander Ostrogorsky, journalist, head and curator of the public programme at the MARCH Architecture School

Right now, gamification is the new trendy skill that everyone is scrambling to master. Learning English, quitting smoking, mastering a new profession – one can do all these things with a simple game on a mobile app. Following this logic, I thought it would make sense to use this technology to draw attention to our city’s green spaces.

Technology aimed at direct contact with the environment can release stress and irritation, increase physical activity, and help residents of big cities get into new eco-friendly habits.

My project consists of three parts: a map of a green area with trees and detailed information about each one, a service responsible for the tree’s intellect, and a chat bot that allows users to talk to a tree as one would a friend – you might chat about Greta Thunberg’s most recent speech or a new film release. The options are endless.

As weird as it may sound, you can talk about any hot topic flooding the internet or social media with a tree. First, AI retrieves information from the web and, after communicating with users, adds their responses and opinions to the database. This makes Smart Nature more individualized with each conversation.

During the interaction, the user will be able to see nature as a complicated multi-faceted system and get into the habit of caring about the environment.

The first version of the app works in English, and now my goal is to make it accessible to more users and develop the function of map editing, as well as adding new trees by park visitors. One more challenge is tree identification, which could help facilitate the ecological monitoring of their quantity.

Nestface: Using Live Facade Modules to Maintain Biodiversity

Author: Daria Klimova

Academic Supervisor: Elena Mitrofanova, architect

My project was inspired by the place for which it was created. Naberezhnye Chelny is a big post-Soviet industrial city, where aesthetic and ecological comfort are at the lowest levels on the sustainability scale. A forest, which had been part of the city’s master plan, is now built over with residential buildings. This led me to the idea of creating sustainable green systems integrated into the existing housing. I looked at smooth concrete surfaces of monotonous residential blocks as a potential for implementing technological experiments. This is how I came up with the idea of vertical green cells.

A lot of modules, which are unevenly distributed across a façade surface, create an ecosystem, which is not easy to maintain and needs an owner. In my project, this role is played by birds. If we create conditions for their existence, the construction can function relatively autonomously in the city system. Swallows, swifts, and sparrows often nest in secluded places of high-rise buildings. They easily tolerate anthropogenic stress and help not only restore the ecosystem, but also eliminate insects that are harmful to humans. As they go about their day, birds distribute plant seeds and help spread nutrients within the system. This is how the facades will be made green.

Modules are distributed across the façade surface not randomly. First a climatic and environmental analysis of the wall surface is conducted, and then the surface is transformed into a vertical net made of three types of modules: a green module, an open nest, and a closed nest. To maintain this system, the project uses an automatic water supply based on soil humidity data. This approach makes the autonomous existence of the system possible. In the winter, the green part of the system exists in suspended animation, and birds continue to nest in closed modules.

As of today, I have managed to develop test samples of nests and assemble a system of modules for passive maintenance, and in the spring, I am going to carry out tests on building facades to get specific experimental data.

Mycokarst: Self-Healing Material Made with Fungal Spores

Author: Anna Budnikova

Academic Supervisor: Elena Mitrofanova, architect

Since I came to HSE University on a scholarship from the Republic of Tatarstan, I needed to develop projects that are relevant for our republic. For my graduation project, I chose the topic of ground sinkholes caused by groundwater movement. Kazan stands on a karst platform, and the water washes out the rock, causing regular sinkholes, which, in the city, are impossible to predict. Still today, our only recourse of dealing with them is to fill them with concrete. That’s why the focus of my research shifted to studying karst sinkholes and searching for new solutions to deal with them.

My project, Mycokarst, is a new generation of urban material based on soil or rock composite and fungal spores that are able to self-restore in extreme conditions.

The idea of the technology is simple: fungal spores are sprayed on the surface of the problematic material. Before this, the soil should be prepared: if it does not have enough calcium, a layer of ash or dolomite powder is added.

Within three weeks after spraying the spores, the system sets at a temperature under +17 Celsius and high humidity. When all the conditions are favorable, and the material has half a year to develop, the resulting material can handle forces of up to 40 MPa. This equals a good material. In the future, it will be able to self-heal without human involvement.

This technology allows managing urban ‘non-programmable’ phenomena, and can be applied in relation to architectural materials with similar carbonate content or in similar extreme conditions anywhere in the world.

In June 2019, Mycokarst won the Outstanding Science Award at the 2019 Biodesign Challenge Summit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and won the first prize in the Technologies of the Future category by the Russian academic journal, Popular Mechanics.

Today, the project is in its first patenting stage. I am working with Lafarge Holcim, an international company whose experts can provide me support in testing the material at a higher level. In addition, I managed to found an architectural company, M-A SPACE, which is focused on energy efficiency and eco-friendly buildings and cities. Therefore, I hope I’ll be able to develop and implement this project in a professional capacity.

How to become an expert in smart cities’ development

HSE University offers scholarships to applicants of the Prototyping Future Cities master’s programme who receive 70 or more on their portfolio evaluations and perform well on their interviews. Applicants who submit their applications before April 14 will receive a 20% discount on tuition fees. Applicant portfolio requirements are listed here.

You can learn more about scholarship opportunities and the programme by arranging a consultation at the Shukhov Lab. Consultations are held every first Tuesday of the month at 6 pm at 20 Myasnitskaya Ulitsa, Room 114. To participate, register here.

Admissions to HSE’s Master’s programmes are now open. International students can apply online. To learn more about HSE University, its admission process, or life in Moscow, please visit International Admissions website, or contact the Education & Training Advisory Centre at: inter@hse.ru,  or via WhatsApp at: +7 (916) 311 8521.
February 11