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Follow the algae brick path to a plant-based building

Cement (an essential binding component for concrete, brick and mortar) is a climate nightmare. To make it, you use carbon-contaminated fossil fuel to heat limestone and clay to very high temperatures. It causes a chemical process, which also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This process consumes very large amounts of carbon and cement is so widely used that it accounts for about 8%of the world's CO2 emissions. Global building stock is projected to double by 2060, and climate proponents are anxious for alternative materials to hit the market sooner.

The factory in Longmont, Colorado may have the answer. By the end of this year, we will begin producing concrete bricks made from algae rather than cement. Formed in 2021 from a research project at the University of Colorado, Prometheus Material takes the microalgae commonly found in lakes and ponds and grows them in bioreactors. As they add air, the algae can supply the carbon dioxide they contain, as well as the light from seawater and LED lamps. This allows algae to produce cement-like substances that can combine sand with gravel or stone to make concrete. This method mimics the natural process by which organisms form hard coral reefs and shells.

Algae-based bricks will be available on the market in 2023. These were designed in collaboration with US construction company Skidmore, Owings&Merrill (SOM),and partially funded. — Known for creating Burj Khalifa at the One World Trade Centers in Dubai and New York.

According to Loren Burnett, CEO of Prometheus Materials, making bricks now emits one-tenth the CO2 of traditional concrete block production. According to Burnett, the process will be carbon-neutral and carbon-negative three years later when the company completes the installation of solar panels to power the manufacturing plant. “There is virtually no CO2 emitted during the process, and it actually isolates CO2,” he says. "Because algae absorb by photosynthesis and embed the algae in building materials."

Prometheus' production schedule consumes large amounts of carbon such assteeland concrete. We are at the forefront of the movement to replace traditional building materials withmaterials derived from plants and other organismsThe so-called "bio-based" materials sector is still in its infancy. However, supporters ofsaid thatmade the construction industrycarbon from one of the world's largest emitters (causing 11%of CO2 emissions). That is, from the bad guys of the climate to some of the solutions.

A new era of plant-based buildings

Using nature for construction is not new. For thousands of years, people have taken the plants and organics that grow around them and turned them into structures. From South Africa to England and Afghanistan, straw has long been mixed with soil and water to form spikes. Fast-growing and durable bamboo is an important element of many traditional architecture in East Asia. Wood has also maintained its historical popularity in many countries, and 90% of new homes in the United Statesare still made of wooden frames.Over the past few decades, environmental activists have sought to make these carbon-absorbing materials the standard for housing and small-scale construction.

Stilt made of bamboo Traditional house Bang Muang Kaew village, a cultural heritage village along the Mekong River in Laos.

Wolfgang Kaehler—LightRocket / Getty Images

However, it is difficult to build on a large scale using natural materials. Has been proven (wooden skyscrapershave emerged in some cities). That's why scientists are developing a new generation of organic-derived materials that are powerful and versatile enough to replace carbon-intensive steel and concrete. To stimulate these efforts, in June the U.S. Department of Energy subsidized $ 39 million for a18 projectworking on "a technology that could transform a building into a pure carbon storage structure." Announced money. The Colorado University team behind the algae brick is one of the recipients. Another recipient is working on fungal-based insulation that can be used to remodel homes. One-third wants to add microorganisms to wood to create "steel-strength" and "living" materials.

Read more: Straw or fungal homes can now get cheaper mortgages in the Netherlands Only

are already on the market with some new bio-based materials: bioMason, Durham, N.C. This company that supplies calcium and CO2 to bacteria to produce biocement. Currently sellstilesin the US and Europe. Meanwhile, Dutch biotechnology company Basilrisk sellsconcretecontaining limestone-producing bacteria and a mixture that can be applied to existing buildings. Rebuild.

Most companies developing bio-based materials face the same challenges as other climate-friendly technologies. We are still struggling to scale the lab's success to a commercial scale at a cost that can compete with alternatives to carbon pollution. Others need to understand how to obtain large quantities of selected organics without competing with the agricultural industry, nature restoration projects, renewable energy and land.

What does it take for algae bricks to become mainstream?

However, Brandt Colletta, a partner of SOM who designed bricks in collaboration with Prometheus, argues that the "easy scalability" of technology is the main attraction of construction companies. Prometheus initially grows algae (which can double in quantity every 4-6 hours) at the Colorado plant, produces cement-like materials, turns them into bricks and ships them to customers. Within 18 months, they will begin shipping a dry, lightweight version of biocement. This allows customers to turn it into bricks without the need for expensive equipment or highly trained staff.

Prometheus is a fine algae, seawater, CO2 , Light to produce a substance like cement

Brooks Freehill

To convince Coretta of that last point , One of the co-founders of Prometheus, mailed him some bricks, along with a photo of his little children making them in the backyard. “Quality control was probably not the strongest in that regard, but it shows that this is a product that can enter the global market,” says Colletta. According to Burnett, the safety certification of Prometheus algae bricks by the American Institute for Testing and Materials must be completed by the end of the year, along with the construction of the manufacturing plant. He states that the factory will soon begin producing "tens of thousands" of bricks and will soon scale up to "significant" quantities, but for commercial reasons it does not reveal the expected quantities. .. Burnett also refuses to share the final price of bricks before production begins, allowing the company to be confident of its cost. “Our goal is not to put a green premium on the blocks,” he says.

Even if the cost of bricks proves to be comparable to traditional concrete blocks, architects and developers "affect the project and have no limited or no impact on the cost." It can take several years to trust. "Coletta says. There is not much data on how popular organic materials are in the construction industry. Even in the Netherlands, which has emerged as a hub of sustainable building practices in recent years,expertsstate that about 3% of the materials used are bio-based.

However, SOM, which has established itself as a leader in green architecture and is enthusiastic about providing low carbon options to its clients, added bricks to its list of materials as soon as safety certification was completed. increase. "Clients come and they see us working on this and they immediately say they want it in their project," says Colletta. "It's hard to keep the design team."

Ciara Nugent () ciara.nugent@time.com