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Living Machines

Todd Dr. John Todd, a professor at the University of Vermont, is a pioneer in the field of ecology, having applied his knowledge and research to helping better the environment. His most significant invention, "Living Machines," sends contaminated wastewater through a series of tanks full of algae, plants, and small fish and animals. In a few days, these organisms digest most of the pollution in the water, leaving it clean and relatively pure.

Todd was trained in agriculture, parasitology, and tropical medicine. He earned a BSc and MSc at McGill University in Montreal, and received his doctorate in fisheries and oceanography from the University of Michigan. His early work involved the behavioral ecology of fish as an Assistant Professor of Ethology at San Diego State University (1968-1970) and as an Assistant Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (1970-1974).

In 1969, Todd co-founded the New Alchemy Institute with his wife, Nancy, to create a science and engineering testing ground for ecological problems. He served as President and Executive Director of the institute from 1970-1981. In 1980 he founded Ocean Arks International. There, throughout the 1980s, he developed an ecological design field which included energy, architecture, waste, food and ocean transport components. His work was published in a series of books and articles.

In 1984, Todd began developing technologies for treating wastes and purifying water. His "Living Machines" were the most visible result of his research. Today, facilities based on the "Living Machines" concept have been built or are under construction in eight countries: Scotland, England, Czechoslovakia, India, Brazil, Australia, the United States and Canada. Todd's "machines" cost about half as much to install as traditional treatment plants laden with concrete and plumbing. Some treat municipal waste, others industrial. The largest, for a food processing plant in Australia, can handle 100,000 gallons of waste per day, about as much as a town of 2,000 people would produce.

In 1990, Todd received the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award for Innovations in Design, and in 1994, he received the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, being the first biologist to receive either of these prestigious awards. In 1996 he was awarded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Achievement Award for his innovations in wastewater treatment and aquaculture.

Today (Nov., 2001), Todd is a Research Professor and Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Vermont. He teaches ecological design and living machines and oversees an ecological design studio. The South Burlington, Vermont, Municipal Sewage Treatment Plant employs Todd's "Living Machines" concept. At the facility, raw sewage and air are pumped into a series of linked giant steel tanks in which plants of 200 species are suspended in wire mesh containers. While the plants drink up nutrients in the sewage, bacteria and microbe roots break down pollutants. As the sewage proceeds from tank to tank, the water becomes cleaner and cleaner, eventually pure enough for irrigation, toilet flushing or car washing.

Todd is also working on developing an Eco-Industrial Park for the City of Burlington. The park's small farmers will produce food year round in a 1 1/2 acre greenhouse warmed by waste heat from the city's wood-fired electrical generating plant. Among other projects, he's also planning for the creation of "ecological malls" where communities can produce food, generate energy and recycle wastes in a biologically propelled loop.

[November 2001]


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