Bio-Engineered Bricks Grown from Urine, Bacteria & Sand

Bricks have built much of our modern world, but how often do we consider the origins of these common building blocks? Brick production – involving a coal-fired kiln – causes a staggering amount of pollution. In fact, the 1.23 trillion bricks manufactured every year produce more pollution than all of the world’s airplanes combined. What can be done to reduce harmful emissions while maintaining the usefulness of the ultra-useful brick? According to one architect, the answer is to grow bricks rather than baking them.

(all images via: Metropolis Mag)

The Better Brick was the 2011 winner of Metropolis Magazine’s Next Generation Design Competition. Conceived by 32-year-old assistant architecture professor Ginger Krieg Dosier, the Better Brick exists at a strange intersection of chemistry, architecture and microbiology. Rather than forming clay into rectangles and firing it at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, her method calls for microbial-induced calcite precipitation. Her bricks are made from sand, calcium chloride, bacteria and urea, a compound found in urine.

The method for making Better Bricks is rather simple, but the chemical process that takes place is less so. Using a simple form, sand is packed into a brick shape and doused with bacteria and the urea solution. After leaving the brick to harden for a week at room temperature, you have a building block that required only simple, renewable materials to build. When building a wall or other structure with the Better Bricks, the same binding method is used to hold them together, making mortar unnecessary. Eventually – when the formula is just right – Dosier says she can even program 3D printers to build the bricks layer by layer to her exact specifications, even in funky shapes.

Like many new green technologies, however, there are some slight snags. The process currently takes roughly three times longer to make bricks than the conventional method, which will mean that the entire building process would be significantly slowed down. But even more troubling is the fact that the process releases massive amounts of ammonia, which is eventually converted to nitrates and can poison groundwater. Dosier’s answer to this problem is to look more closely at developing a closed-loop system where the waste products are recycled to be used in the manufacturing process rather than released into the environment.

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