Growing bricks out of bacteria, sand, calcium chloride and pee? Well, thanks to a recent discovery by an American architecture professor in Abu Dhabi, we may be looking forward to bio-engineered bricks that will be grown out of a laboratory at room temperature, rather than fired in a kiln using tons of trees and coal.
The brick breakthrough happened almost by accident: after years of research beginning with crystal growing kits and experimenting with various chemistry recipes, 32-year-old Ginger Krieg Dosier, an assistant architecture professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, chanced upon her first Lego-sized "baby brick" after throwing the remnants of other failed trials and waiting a week.
Bricks major source of carbon emissions
Cheap, sturdy and easy to produce, kiln-fired bricks have been around for a long time. But the process required for this widely-used traditional material means rampant deforestation and vast amounts of carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere. With more than 1.23 trillion bricks manufactured each year (and many by coal-fueled kilns), each brick emits 1.3 pounds of carbon dioxide, adding up to more carbon emissions than is produced by air travel annually.
According to Metropolis, which awarded the intrepid architect-scientist with a Next Generation Design award:
The process, known as microbial-induced calcite precipitation, or MICP, uses the microbes on sand to bind the grains together like glue with a chain of chemical reactions. The resulting mass resembles sandstone but, depending on how it's made, can reproduce the strength of fired-clay brick or even marble. If Dosier's biomanufactured masonry replaced each new brick on the planet, it would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 800 million tons a year. "We're running out of all of our energy sources," she said in March in a phone interview from the United Arab Emirates. "Four hundred trees are burned to make 25,000 bricks. It's a consumption issue, and honestly, it's starting to scare me."
Dosier plans to refine the brick's precise composition, so that in the future it can be fabricated layer by layer on a 3-D printer.
The only problem? The process produces large amounts of ammonia, which microbes convert to nitrates, which can eventually poison groundwater supplies. Though the problem could be completely avoided altogether with just recycling bricks or with less chemically fancy materials like compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) or poo-bricks, for her bio-engineered brick Dosier hopes to design a closed-loop system using organic buffers (such as carbon filters) to capture these by-products before they transform and to recycle them back into the brick-production process.