Traditional brick production is highly taxing on the environment. There is now an innovative and sustainable alternative available.
Brick production is believed to have originated around 7500 BC, in the Middle East at sites in Syria and Turkey. Since then, the industry has come a long way. Today, global brick manufacture has reached 1.5 trillion units per year, 90% of which occurs in Asia. However, this activity comes at a steep environmental price; it consumes water and fossil fuels, while generating air pollutants. These include carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, in addition to other more toxic emissions of ammonia, formaldehyde, and hydrogen fluoride.
While gas is commonly used in more industrialised countries, in China and India coal is widespread. In total, brick making is associated with about 0.8 billion tonnes of CO2 annually.
Meanwhile, concrete manufacture is even worse. It is considered to be the world’s second most carbon-polluting industrial process after the burning of fossil fuels. It represents around five to seven percent of global carbon emissions. This means its greater than releases from all of the world’s planes and ships combined. Total carbon dioxide emissions are around 3.6 billion tonnes.
So what are the solutions?
One is a full switch to renewables, but even this has its shortcomings. In the case of concrete, the chemical reaction liberates CO2 gas as a byproduct. Consequently the adoption of renewables could only halve emissions. Other more sustainable options include recycled bricks, the use of fly ash in concrete mixtures, and carbon-negative hemp or strawbale construction.
Other, far more ‘outside the box’ solutions are being developed too. Ginger Krieg Dosier is an American entrepreneur with a background in academia, in the field of architecture. As a child in Alabama, she had a strong interest in collecting shells, and was fascinated by how they grew underwater. Later, her focus shifted to the growth of coral reefs via the accumulation of calcium carbonate.
When working at Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, she began her own experiments in producing a material using bacterial cultures and a ready supply of the local fine sand. After many failures, eventually she obtained a successful result after throwing in several cultures together and coming back after a few days.
Her next breakthrough was to be awarded top prize in Metropolis Magazine’s 2010 international design competition, Next Generation: The Big Fix, where entrants were asked to send in proposals for growing bricks as an alternative to manufacturing them. In 2012, she founded the company bioMASON, with a vision of developing this technology, and eventually bringing it to the world.
In the manufacturing process, sand is placed into moulds, and a natural culture of bacillus is then introduced. This mix is then fed calcium ions suspended in water, resulting in the steady accumulation of calcium carbonate around the sand particles until a solid structure is created. It is possible to vary the colour and texture.
The finished material takes between two and five days to produce. This is in the same ballpark as industrial bricks, and far quicker than the prolonged curing of most concrete mixes. Environmentally, it has the major benefit of being produced at ambient temperatures, requiring no heat.
Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, the company has scaled up its production process with a facility capable of producing up to ten thousand bricks at a time. Samples are currently being tested for their performance in real-world conditions. Into the future, there are visions of a portable assembly line housed in a shipping container. With no electricity required, bioMASON’s bricks could be made anywhere as a substitute for brick and concrete.
bioMASON’s work belongs in the novel field of biofabrication, which is focused on manufacture based on biological organisms such as yeast, bacteria, fungi, and algae. However, it also extends to the more risky fields of ‘biohacking’ and synthetic biology. Recently, bioMASON joined forces with a sister company, Ecovative, to create a unique type of furniture.
Ecovative is another biofabrication company based near Albany, New York State. They work with a mixture of mushroom mycelium, wood chips and hemp fibres. Its end product has been converted into packaging and tiles, among other uses. The jointly-produced furniture items are stools and tables, which have a dark brown frame that looks like wood (made with Ecovative’s mushroom mix), and a light-coloured top (made from bioMASON’s bacterial cultivation.) These were unveiled in November 2016. While they do not appear to be available to purchase at present, it looks hopeful that later they will be available via the Ecovative site www.everythinghomegrown.com. Expected prices range between US $250 and US $699
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