Researchers Look at Bacteria for Living Bricks
Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder recently published a study in the journal Matter that describes a new approach to designing more sustainable buildings.
In the publication, engineer Wil Srubar and his team describe the strategy for using bacteria to develop building materials that “live and multiply.”
“We already use biological materials in our buildings, like wood, but those materials are no longer alive,” said Srubar, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. “We’re asking: Why can’t we keep them alive and have that biology do something beneficial, too?”
The idea is that the structures would be able to heal their own cracks, absorb toxins from the air or even glow “on command.”
“Though this technology is at its beginning, looking forward, living building materials could be used to improve the efficiency and sustainability of building material production and could allow materials to sense and interact with their environment," said lead author Chelsea Heveran, a former postdoctoral research assistant at CU Boulder, now at Montana State University.
The crux of the research was cyanobacteria. Under the right conditions, the university says, the microbes absorb carbon dioxide and grow to make calcium carbonate.
In terms of manufacturing, the researchers add cyanobacteria into a solution of sand and gelatin. The calcium carbonate mineralizes the gelatin, which binds with the sand and creates a brick. This process also removes carbon dioxide from the air, as opposed to creating it like the manufacturing of standard bricks.
The team’s research included strength tests and found the “living bricks” to have the same strength as regular mortar.
“The researchers also discovered that they could make their materials reproduce,” according to the university. “Chop one of these bricks in half, and each of half is capable of growing into a new brick.”
While the team says there’s a lot of work to do before the technology is commercial available, Srubar envisions a chain in which suppliers mail out sacks of the ingredients, allowing contractors to just add water and grow their own materials on site.