Custom-built wastewater treatment system purifies water without chemicals by mimicking a natural ecosystem.

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An Eco-Machine is a custom-built wastewater treatment system inspired by living ecosystems. The inventing company, John Todd Ecological Design, describes Eco-Machines as “microcosmic ecosystems” made up of a “series of ecosystems that we engineer and design to address different kinds of waste streams—whether that is domestic wastewater and sewage, to industrial waste, to compromised water bodies that have high levels of nutrients.” Rather than use chemicals to treat wastewater, Eco-Machines mimic the processes of a natural ecosystem, where a diverse set of interacting organisms clean contaminated water via naturally occurring processes. Components of a natural ecosystem are assembled together (for example, as a series of aquatic tanks) and collectively contain organisms from all five kingdoms of life. Organisms in the Eco-Machine eventually break down pollutants in the introduced wastewater. These broken-down materials (including nitrogen and phosphorus) are removed from the water when they are used by other organisms as part of a nutrient cycle. Rather than being left to accumulate as waste, these nutrients are used to generate more biomass and sustain life in the Eco-Machine. Wetlands are one of the main kinds of ecosystems imitated in Eco-Machines, as they typically contain “water-loving plants that…like high-nutrient environments.” Other Eco-Machine designs have mimicked soil ecosystems. Regardless of the inspiring ecosystem, all Eco-Machines use biodiversity as part of their design. Eco-Machines have been used in a variety of settings, including greenhouses, as well as outdoor landscapes.

For much more information on how Eco-Machines work and to see one in action, check out this video of the Eco-Machine at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

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Biomimicry Story

Eco-Machines were invented by Dr. John Todd as a “cost-effective, renewable, or what is now commonly referred to as ‘green’ solution to the growing global wastewater crisis.” The company Dr. Todd founded, John Todd Ecological Design, has constructed dozens of Eco-Machine wastewater treatment systems based on Dr. Todd’s visionary ecological philosophy and award-winning practical designs in 11 countries on five continents around the world.” (John Todd Ecological Design website) One particular Eco-Machine in the design phase in South Africa demonstrates how these innovative systems are customized to address local issues specific to a site. This Eco-Machine is designed to treat wastewater from an informal community settlement without easy access to electricity. Rather than use electric pumps to move water, the Eco-Machine will apply “dendritic principles:” several interconnected cells will be “arranged in a staggered pattern going down the hill,” where gravity is used to move water through the network of cells resembling a pattern of branching tree roots.

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