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Biomanufactured brick needs no firing, may be big deal

Energy & Sustainability Science
Biomanufactured brick needs no firing, may be big deal

I don’t usually look to Metropolis magazine for respectable science. And I’m not starting now. But they have managed to find and bestow an award upon a bright young researcher–one Ginger Krieg Dosier of the UAE’s American University of Sharjah–who claims she can make bricks that work just as well as traditional bricks just by mixing a few cheap ingredients at room temperature: sand, a not-dangerous-to-people bacterial culture broth, a common salt, and urea which, as you might suppose, would in practice almost certainly come from animal urine:

“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.”

Then again, if Calla lilies replaced each new brick on the planet, it would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 800 million tons a year. But we’d also be living in a world without useful new bricks to build stuff with. It is probably reasonable to expect that Dosier’s “Bacteria Bricks” will fare better as a construction material than Calla lilies, but whether they are truly comparable to conventional masonry in mechanical properties, durability, and weather resistance still remains to be proved. Also, her bricks take weeks to harden, compared to traditionally-fired bricks which can be manufactured in two days.

Still, prototypes are never perfect, and a lot of persistence and creative thinking has already gone into Dosier’s research, and she deserves serious points for originality and effort. Here’s hoping she really can make her process work, in practice, well enough to live up to its rapidly-proliferating hype. [via Boing Boing]

30 thoughts on “Biomanufactured brick needs no firing, may be big deal

  1. John V. says:

    Whoa, there, Tex! Metropolis is a really great design magazine, what’s up with the snark?

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      But it’s not a source anybody who was a construction engineer, a materials scientist, a chemist, or a microbiologist would look to for authoritative information. And since a lot of the details about whether this process is really viable are highly technical (e.g. will eutrophication of ammonia produced by this process lead to potentially even greater greenhouse emissions when that ammonia is oxidized to nitrous oxide?) I don’t think we can depend on their analysis as to whether or not the process is really going to change things.

      1. John V. says:

        Well, sure, I love Make and Metropolis, but I don’t think of either as a serious scientific journal. Your first couple of sentences just sounded like a dis on Metropolis for being something that it never claimed to be. Maybe that was not your intent, however. Sorry.

  2. RocketGuy says:

    There was a TED talk about greening the Sahara with a similar technology, using it to make stone out of the sand for a wall-like human habitation that helped reduce desertification. Don’t remember all the details, but it was also microbe based, I think very similar to this.

  3. migpics says:

    I wonder what the similarity to adobe bricks made my California native Americans to build missions this may have. They mixed mud, sand, urea, straw and manure to make their bricks and dried them out in the sun.

    1. capt.tagon says:

      This would be a biological replacement for products such as SandLoc. There are plenty of non-brick making uses for this, getting sand to stay between the bricks in a walkway, sealing against ant activity, sandstone layer paving. The question is, does it leave efflorescence all over everything or does the calcium cementation stay within the sand substrate?

  4. capt.tagon says:

    “compared to traditionally-fired bricks which can be manufactured in two days.” sounds like it conveniently forgets drying time. Improperly dried bricks put into a kiln kind of explode.

  5. Matt Dell says:

    I would have thought some clever maker out there could use this as feedstock for a fabbing machine that would print complete buildings. I’m sure that if the machine deposited a thin enough layer it’d dry in a reasonable time. Imagine the possibilities…

    1. Alan says:

      3D-printed buildings sound a bit too much like Thomas Edison’s spectacular flop a century ago ( Crank up the concrete phonograph.

      1. capt.tagon says:

        Like quite a few things out there, the idea was way ahead of its time. We now use ICF technology for this. Instead of needing expensive, nickel plated forms, you stack polystyrene foam blocks drop rebar in the proper courses and then pour the thing full of concrete. Once set, you have an insulated, steel reinforced concrete wall with raceways available on the interior for running utilities.

  6. Dileep says:

    Mudblocks have properties comparable to load-bearing bricks, but don’t require kiln-heating. Their stress-failure properties, methods of preparation and energy analysis have all been in academic study for over a decade. My father is one of its proponents:

  7. MadRat says:

    Those were all nice comments and everything but no one asked the most important question: how do we try this at home?

  8. Andrew says:

    This paper has some details, not about these bricks specifically, but microbially induced cementation in general.

    The process is really pretty simple. The media contains urea and CaCl2 (a soluble Ca2+ source) the bacteria break down the urea to form ammonia and CO2. The ammonia raises the pH, and Ca2+ precipitates out with carbonates.

    Homemade Calcite

    I gave it a first round go last night.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      That’s great, Andrew. We would love to hear about your results, whatever they may be. Feel free to contact me directly at, if you’d like, or post them in this thread or whatever. Would love to blog about your experiment.

  9. kdistel says:

    I went to a presentation a few weeks back that discussed how the Egyptians probably used a form of concrete to create the blocks you see in the pyramids. Seemed very convincing and the professor has published about it. Another piece of evidence that different forms of bricks have existed and have been used. If anyone is interested, here is his page.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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