Project Description

Project Overview

One evening while driving home, I saw a large tree on the side of the road. And my first thought was how is a tree of that size capable of absorbing enough sunlight to sustain itself? And I realized that it’s due to how leaves are also located within the center of the tree closer to the trunk. And this eventually evolved into the concept it is today which is focused on creating a self sustaining structure that would be used to generate algae for biofuels.

I worked on this project on my own for the first year or so before working with the Zip Idea lab, where my project manager, Rosemary, set me up with a process and tools to develop my idea. I started by focusing on the problem statement, “How might we develop a structure that increases the generation of algae for biofuels, and is built into urban infrastructure in a visually appealing manner?

Project Plan


The first tool I used in the Empathy stage was Research. Through my research I learned that unless the world switches completely to electric, the next best option for renewable and sustainable energy is the creation of biofuels from algae. Algae is not a part of the food supply like corn (traditional biofuel source) and can grow almost anywhere as it doesn’t rely on fertile soil. Biofuels present not only a future for traditional means of transportation and energy creation but simultaneously helps reverse the co2 emissions caused by the current use of fossil fuels today.

Many companies such as Exxon / Mobil are currently working on genetically engineering algae that is better suited for refinement into biofuels. They focused much time, effort and research into creating algae that produces more oil per cell, however they have yet to create a processes for their generation that is both new and more efficient. The two testing methods they primarily use is pools and closed systems, both with their own inefficiencies. The pools need large flat lands, and a constant supply of water; while the closed systems can be housed anywhere but run the risk of essentially suffocating the algae as there is no way of providing a constant and consistent supply of co2 while simultaneously pulling out oxygen that is generated by photosynthesis.

Along with my research, I observed certain aspects of the environment that are involved in my problem. Through my observation I learned that there are copious amounts of land that goes unused as they lie on the sides of freeways, between residential areas and on steep hills. If a structure can be created that houses a system that cultivates algae, is inconspicuous enough that it blends into the environment around it, and is intuitive enough to easily work with; cities could easily provide enough land to house enough algae producing systems to the point where the resulting biofuels created could power every mode of transportation, housing, etc.; all while not requiring to dangerously transport oil large distances as biofuel refinement centers could be housed within the city.

Once I completed my research and observation, I was instructed to engage and talk with people involved with my problem. I was directed to talk to professors in my physics major, as well as professors who teach biology, engineering, etc. I also surveyed variety of people to gain more information on how people felt about biofuels and the design. What I learned through my engagement is as long as people are not inconvenienced, either by the sight or interaction with a structure they are completely fine with its existence within their everyday life. This places a considerable importance on the looks as many would oppose a structure that looks like it doesn’t belong somewhere. I also learned that many people would definitely switch towards renewable fuel sources such as biofuels as long as it’s capable of working within their car without any modification and is cheaper. Many people would also support more spending on renewable resources in the future as long as there’s promise of it paying off in the future.


Through synthesize, I realized there are some things that have to be excluded so that two or more others can be included. This reigned most true when the concept was to create the structure with the sole intention of having it produce electricity. I realized that the market for Solar and Wind is already dominated by solar panels and wind farms, and the introduction of a product that is in comparison, more complicated, would most likely not succeed as there isn’t anything wrong with current traditional products.

Going alongside synthesize I realized that I wouldn’t be able to create a product that can disrupt an already strong industry and therefore, while I can maintain the same general idea, by tailoring it to this specific market of algae generation, it has a stronger viability as it is a currently untapped market.


I learned through working on the sketch divergent that there are various ways in which the concept could be made. However the ones that integrate the most into urban infrastructure would require cooperation with not only cities but with building owners and other private third parties. Therefore I believe that the best processes are the ones in which structures could be added onto existing ones. Such as the system attached to the highway overpass or the original solar tree concept. Because these concepts do not require or rely on re-engineering of existing infrastructures or cooperation with owners of private establishments, it would be easier to negotiate placement of structures like the solar tree or the overpass system since they wouldn’t impact structural integrity or visual aspects of the infrastructure as a whole.

I learned that the product could be formatted to fit in any environment and therefore could have a multitude of designs which could benefit a wider spectrum of use cases but could also hurt in a marketing sense since the different designs could be viewed as having their own pros and cons comparatively.


While prototyping, I learned that fitting every part together gets much easier once it gets closer and closer to a real and finalized product. I also realized that the more real that the prototype gets, the more I need to explain how it all fits together and how everything interacts with each other. The most important thing I learned is that there is always something that can be improved upon.


After gathering feedback on prototype 1.0 from my professors, I was able to generate prototype 1.1. From here, I plan on continuing to develop my prototype, making each model more realistic in material and size.


I learned that there is much more to creating a fully functioning product than just creating a concept and a rudimentary rendering. I learned that every single aspect of the tree must be taken into account before thinking about creating a working prototype and that even though a concept was created in regards to one market, it can be changed as it might better fit another market. This concept began with the idea of  creating a system that looked like a tree to exist within society, that can generate renewable energy and water for general consumption. But evolved into a concept to house a sustainable algae generating system within a tree that is powered by the everything that was a part of the old concept; allowing for the tree to be self sustaining and operate independently from any local power grid.

This concept of an algae generating system that is housed within a structure that mimics the visual characteristics of a tree or bush, has the potential to be very viable within the next couple of years. By solving the problems that plague traditionally tested forms of algae generation, this concept would be able to create and dominate its own market with the capability of being deployed in any city, in any country on the planet where any form of plant life can grow. Therefore, this concept, if fleshed out fully, can lead to the creation of an untapped sustainable renewable biofuel market that is bound to begin, as we near the end of the supply of traditional fossil fuels.

Through my work with the ZIP Idea Lab, I learned that creating a finalized product takes not only copious amounts of time but also copious amounts of reflection, inflection, doubt and overall perseverance and problem solving through all of that to come up with the best product possible. I also learned that a concept is only good if it can survive as a product on a market and therefore the viability of a concept should always be taken into consideration at each step to ensure that the work that’s being done is so that the product can reach its maximum potential.

Next Steps: I plan on submitting my idea to the ZIP Launchpad this upcoming semester for further funding and help with development. – Mark Morales


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