Researchers have invented a brick that can build itself


(Wesley Tingey, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Engineers have invented a self-replicating brick that pulls CO2 from the air.
  • The brick is produced by harnessing photosynthesis and bacteria.
  • While refinements are needed, researchers say the new technique is an advance in the search for lower-energy, lower-carbon building materials.

What do you get if you mix sand, bacteria and sunlight? A self-replicating building material that pulls CO2 straight out of the atmosphere, according to research engineers at one university in the United States.

At the heart of this new building material is Synechococcus, a type of bacteria which is found in plankton and uses photosynthesis to generate energy.

The bacteria is combined with sand and gelatin, then soaked in warm nutrient-rich saltwater. Photosynthesis does the rest, producing calcium carbonate along with oxygen and glucose.

Common forms of calcium carbonate include marble, limestone and chalk. That compound makes up around 4% of the Earth’s crust, and is a major component of building materials – in particular, cement.

A new approach

Cement and brick production are very energy-intensive processes that also call for a lot of extracted raw materials. Quarries are dug for clay and other aggregate material, such as limestone, and temperatures of more than 1,000ºC are needed to form some bricks for construction. This process consumes great amounts of energy, directly and indirectly. Some estimates suggest the production of cement and bricks could be responsible for 7-8% of global CO2 emissions.

The search for lower-energy, lower-carbon building materials is gaining momentum. In 2010, German researchers created a new binding agent that reduces the energy consumption and CO2 emissions of cement production. In the US, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have proposed a method for producing cement using electrolysis rather than furnaces to cause the chemical reactions needed. But the researchers working with the Synechococcus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, claim they are breaking new ground.

“I would say that our approach is fundamentally different because we are using photosynthetic bacteria and CO2 and sunlight to make the material,” says Wil Srubar, a materials scientist and architectural engineer on the project.

“We enabled the bacteria … to help in the manufacturing process of the actual material.”

The work is part of a sharpened focus on living building materials, which are produced using biochemistry, and which can be fully recycled after use.

The Life Cycle of Living Building Materials
Living building materials considerably reduce carbon emissions.
Image: Matter

A new framework

The combination of sand and gelatin create a rigid framework or scaffold for the bacteria to inhabit and multiply across. The original parent generation of Synechococcus was able to produce three subsequent generations.

In one experiment, a brick formed from the new material was broken in two and resubmerged in the saline solution, where it repaired itself, growing a fully matching new half where the old one had been.

Formation of the LBM Mineralized Scaffold
How to make a living brick.
Image: Matter

The material has its limitations. The bacteria, for example, requires the right conditions and moisture to thrive.

Additionally, there are some questions regarding the material’s toughness, according to the journal Scientific American, which writes: “Compared with a similar material that contained no cyanobacteria, the living version was 15% tougher in terms of resisting fractures. But it fell short of the resilience of standard bricks or cement, performing more like low-strength cement or hardened mortar.”

As a result, the research team behind the living brick does not see the material as a new mass-market building product. Instead, they say: “We were motivated by building infrastructure in really resource-limited environments.”

Despite the need for ongoing improvements, the innovation could have potential for use in remote locations where materials, energy and money are not always freely available.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Everybody against Germany over the expensive euro

EU-U.S. Trade Talks: European Commission presents draft negotiating mandates

How do we go about improving mental health in the community and reducing suicide rates in the 15-29 age group?

African economies sustain progress in domestic resource mobilisation

UN updates guidelines to ensure successful return to civilian life for former combatants

The new North America trade deal USMCA punishes German cars

Lebanon: UN rights office calls for de-escalation of protest violence

Guterres welcomes conduct of Afghan elections, commends ‘all who braved security concerns to uphold their right to vote’

This is why we should test everyone for COVID-19

Hope for ‘long-elusive progress’ in negotiating peace in eastern Ukraine

Eurozone: There is a remedy for regional convergence

Refugee crisis update: EU lacks solidarity as migration figures drop

Criminals thrive on data abundance – here’s how we’ll catch them

4 crazy things that are happening in the Arctic right now

Counting unemployment in the EU: The real rate comes to anything between 16.1% and 20.6%

Mental Health Policy, a significant driver for growth

MEPs strengthen EU financial watchdogs

Time to be welcome: Youth work and integration of young refugees

These LGBTQI Davos leaders shared their advice on coming out

Pharmaceuticals spend millions to push TTIP while consumer groups spend peanuts

European Youth Forum welcomes establishment of new Youth Intergroup in the European Parliament

Under fire, UN refugee agency evacuates 135 detained in Libya to Niger

Secure 5G networks: Commission endorses EU toolbox and sets out next steps

Telemedicine can be a COVID-19 game-changer. Here’s how

Fighting against the Public Health System dismantling means guaranteeing assistance to all

UN blue helmets in South Sudan use Sustainable Development Goals to help build peace

What makes America the world’s most competitive economy?

Is Germany yielding to pressures for more relaxed economic policies?

In polarized America, a new divide looms

Humans aren’t made for repetition – it’s time AI took over manufacturing

This is what you need to know about the Iran nuclear deal

Where do health literacy and health policy meet?

Why we need to start a new pro-vaccine movement

Parliament seals 2014 EU budget and the spending ceiling until 2020

Electronic or conventional cigarettes – which is safer?

The EU cuts roaming charges further while the UK weighs Brexit impact

Fashion has a huge waste problem. Here’s how it can change

Young people are key to defusing unrest and restoring public trust

Early detection of chronic kidney disease can save lives and cut costs

In post-COVID Latin America, investment in infrastructure can bring back tourism – and rebuild the economy

Renewed pressures on Berlin to adopt growth policies

Worth going ‘extra mile’ for a new Syrian constitution, UN envoy urges

How can batteries become more sustainable? This young scientist might have the answer

In Bahrain, Global Forum for Entrepreneurs and Investment examines empowerment of women, youth through innovation

Thousands returning to Nigeria’s restive Borno state ‘at risk’; UN ‘gravely concerned’

We can end TB right now. Here’s how

Why today’s leaders need to know about the power of narratives

WHO supports measles campaign targeting millions of children in northern Nigeria

Deutsche Bank chased away from US, threatened with more fines

Climate change is speeding up. Our response needs to be even faster

First-ever EU defence industry fund to finance joint development of capabilities

Tax revenues continue increasing as the tax mix shifts further towards corporate and consumption taxes

Manufacturing reimagined: from improved productivity to profitable growth

Will Turkey abandon the refugee deal and risk losing a bonanza of money?

VW diesel scandal and climate change: can increased independent car checks lead to cleaner mobility?

Humanitarian migration falls while labour and family migration rises

Thursday’s Daily Brief: Climate crisis and food risks, fresh violence threat for millions of Syrians, calls for calm in Kashmir

Boris to end up in jail if he loses the next elections?

Social enterprises can change entire industries. This is how

Here are three technology trends changing the way you travel

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s