This article will provide an overview of bioengineered building materials, discussing materials, products, and projects that have been made possible due to research in this area.
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The construction industry must adapt to meet the challenges of a growing population and increasing environmental damage from anthropogenic climate change. Recently, there has been an increased focus on innovative technologies that improve the sustainability and eco-friendliness of the construction sector.
Amongst proposed technological solutions, bioengineered construction materials have been extensively researched, with new, innovative products entering the market over the past few years and exciting bioengineering-based building projects breaking ground.
The Problem with Traditional Construction
Wood, steel, plastic, stone, and concrete are just some of the conventional construction materials used in building projects worldwide. Whilst traditional building materials possess well-defined, favorable mechanical and physical properties, their use has proven to be problematic in recent years.
The manufacture of materials such as steel and concrete massively contributes to climate change due to the greenhouse gases emitted during production processes. Cement production alone is responsible for 4-5% of the total CO2 emissions caused by industrial activity and ranks third behind the energy and transport sectors. Overall, construction accounts for around 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, the construction industry still overwhelmingly exploits virgin resources. Quarrying and mining activities cause land cover changes and pollution, as well as carbon emissions from machinery, infrastructure, and processing plants. Additionally, these activities cause huge social problems, especially in developing nations.
Bioengineering Construction Materials: A Flowering Field of Materials Research
Utilizing biotechnology to produce new building materials is hugely promising for the future of the construction industry. It has the potential to fundamentally change the way the built environment connects and interacts with the natural world. The field is flowering, but it is still in its infancy, with widespread commercial uptake of bioengineered materials still some years away. Bioengineered construction materials, also known as living building materials, sit at the intersection of bioengineering, chemistry, materials science, and design.
Bioengineered construction materials have several advantages that make them an innovative solution to the challenges faced by the construction industry. Bioengineered materials which can grow, self-heal, and produce energy are the next frontier in both biotechnology and materials science and provide a new architectural paradigm.
This class of materials exploits microorganisms and helps to meet several objectives such as reducing construction’s carbon footprint, reducing the need for virgin resources, improving sustainability, developing innovative structures, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Waste materials can be valorized in their manufacture, further improving the circularity of the construction industry.
As the world’s population rapidly expands and urbanization increases at an exponential rate, the need for solutions such as bioengineered construction materials to reduce future impacts on the environment is pressing.
Bio-Bricks and Biocement
Ginger Krieg Dosier, an American architect, has produced “bio-bricks” using sand and bacteria. In the manufacturing process, the mixture of bacteria and sand are placed into molds and left to set for five days with a nutrient solution. The process bio-cements the sand grains to create a solid brick using microbiologically induced calcite precipitation.
Her company Biomason has announced several partnerships with industry and governmental agencies to produce biocement and this year the company raised $65 million in a Series C funding round to accelerate scaling and introduction of their technology.
Growing bricks with bacteria -- bioMASON
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Concrete is a ubiquitous material in the modern world. It is used for buildings and infrastructure in every urban area. Whilst alternative materials have been proposed, many do not emulate the favorable properties of concrete. To meet the challenges of concrete use in modern construction, scientists from DARPA and the University of Colorado, Boulder, developed “living concrete.”
The technology contains a cyanobacteria-inoculated 3D sand-hydrogel scaffold. Cyanobacteria can survive extremes of salinity, humidity, and temperature. The scaffold provides structural support, whereas the microorganisms mineralize calcium carbonate, providing structural support.
The material is self-healing and self-replicating and can sequester carbon dioxide from the environment due to bacterial respiration. Interestingly, this material can be said to be truly “green” due to the coloring caused by cyanobacteria in the matrix. The self-replicating ability of living concrete significantly reduces the number of raw materials required and the need for intensive, carbon dioxide-emitting manufacturing processes.
Using Mushrooms as Building Materials
A 40-foot tower constructed from 10,000 mycelial bricks has been built in New York to showcase the potential of using bioengineered materials in construction. The technology is highly sustainable, as the manufacture involved no carbon emissions or waste.
The bricks were “grown” by mixing mycelium with chopped-up corn husks, placed in a mold, and left to grow for five days. This process produced a brick that was lightweight and solid. One of the main advantages of this innovative approach is that agricultural waste materials can be used in the manufacturing process.
Whilst the field of bioengineered construction materials is still in its infancy, there are some exciting prospects for the future of sustainable building technologies that will help overcome the traditional issues faced by the construction industry.
Whilst this article has provided a brief overview of the topic, there are several projects and products in development today that intersect biotechnology, chemistry, design, and materials science that are promising to fundamentally change the nature of construction. These innovative approaches could signpost the way toward a more sustainable, eco-friendly, and circular paradigm for the industry and alter the way the built environment and natural world connect and interact.
Further Reading and More Information
Cutieru, A (2022) Biotechnology and Green Tech: A New Material World for Sustainable Architecture [online] archdaily.com. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/978288/biotechnology-and-green-tech-a-new-material-world-for-sustainable-architecture
Jee, C (2020) These living bricks use bacteria to build themselves [online] MIT Technology Review | technologyreview.com. Available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/01/16/130853/these-living-bricks-use-bacteria-to-build-themselves/
Biomason (2022) Biomason raises $65 million Series C round to scale biocement® technology [online] biomason.com. Available at: https://biomason.com/media/28-feb-22_biomason-press-release_series-c_updated.pdf
Hart, K (2021) Bioengineered Building Materials [online] naturalbuildingblog.com. Available at: http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/bioengineered-building-materials/