Bricks from bacteria

Clay Technology magazine
11 Jun 2010

Bricks, grown at room temperature from bacteria, sand, and urea, could drastically reduce the construction industry’s carbon footprint, their developer claims.

The bio-manufactured bricks, created by Professor Ginger Krieg Dosier, at the American University of Sharjah in Abu Dhabi, UAE, are produced by layering sand with Sporosarcina pasteurii, a non-pathogenic common soil bacterium naturally found in wetlands.

The bacteria are mixed with a solution of urea and calcium chloride. They use urea as a source of energy, producing ammonia and carbon dioxide, increasing the pH level of the solution, says Dosier. The rise in pH forms a mineral precipitate, combining calcium chloride with carbon dioxide. The bacteria can then act as nucleation sites, attracting mineral ions from calcium chloride to the cell wall, forming calcite crystals. The mineral growth fills gaps between the sand grains, cementing them.

Rather than being fired in a kiln, the chemical reaction dries and hardens the material at temperatures of 20-30ºC, reducing energy costs. Dosier claims that the resulting material is as strong as a fired clay brick.

Wetting, drying, freeze-thaw and abrasion resistance tests are yet to be conducted, as is a comparison with un-fired clay bricks in terms of their eco-credentials.

Up to now, the process has only been tested using sand from the UAE, but Dosier is keen to test aggregates from other countries for compatibility with the bacteria. ‘These soils will include small percentages of clay’, she explains, ‘But they will need to be specifically graded for this process as fine particles will block [bacteria] penetration.’

While the new brick presents countless design possibilities, there are hurdles in terms of large-scale production. Firstly, this process is slow (taking one week to dry and harden) and, secondly, the chemical processes release ammonia and a small amount of carbon dioxide. Microbes convert the ammonia to nitrates, which can poison groundwater. To solve this problem, Dosier plans to design a system that will capture emissions and recycle them back into the production cycle.

Pete Walker, Professor of Innovative Construction Materials at the University of Bath, UK, sees promise in the work, but recognises there is still plenty of research to be done.

‘A rigorous lifecycle assessment [is needed] to make sure there are no hidden negative environmental impacts,’ he says. ‘But perhaps the biggest concern relates to any potential health risks. What happens if not all the bacteria is converted or activated in the chemical process? Are these bacteria going to cause any concern to the structure of the building or its inhabitants?’

Walker also insists that the technique has to be economically viable before it can make its way into industry, and these biological bricks currently cost over five times the amount of one made from clay (US$2.70 per bio-manufactured brick compared to US$0.5 for a traditional clay brick).

Dosier says she is working to address these issues, and is looking for industrial partners to take the work further.