A British competition chaired by environmentalist investor Richard Branson awarded $669,000 to an American start-up that’s developed an organic, carbon-free process to make bricks. The London-based Postcode Lottery Green Challenge gives an annual award to the best green business idea, and this year’s first-place winner was the firm bioMASON and its founder and CEO, Ginger Krieg Dosier, an architect turned biotechnology entrepreneur.
Through a process that Dosier compares to the way marine life constructs coral or sea shells, bioMASON uses bacteria to form sand into a crystalline structure that can serve as bricks or a cement-like construction material. The process occurs in a setting similar to a greenhouse, and its only inputs are the bacteria and its food, sand, nitrogen, calcium, and water. As a bonus, the irrigation system for the bacteria is even recycled in a closed-loop set-up, meaning bioMASON’s business model wastes little water.
Right now, bioMASON is focused on providing an alternative to the traditional bricks used in the developing world. Those are usually made by forming clay, sand, and water into the shape, and then firing the brick at 2,000 degrees for three to five days — obviously a process that’s heavy on the energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. According to Dosier’s presentation, 1.23 trillion such bricks are made worldwide each year, for a total carbon footprint of around 800 million tons — greater than that of the global airline industry. And along with the greenhouse gas problem, there’s also the problem of resource consumption: Dosier cites William McDonough’s documentary on human waste production, “Waste Equals Food,” which concluded that if traditional brick-making is used, rural China’s current need for 200 million new homes would chew up 25 percent of the top layer of agricultural land for the clay, and consume over half the country’s coal reserves for the energy to fire them.
If bioMASON or technologies like it are able to make headway in the developed world as an alternative for cement, that could also yield substantial dividends in terms of fighting climate change. Cement production emits a lot of carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound basis, both through power consumption and the chemical processes involved. The cement industry has apparently made some headway in cutting the carbon-intensity of its production process, and the Cement Sustainability Initiative (CSI), an industry group, claims it’s cut carbon dioxide emissions from 400 metric tons for 500 metric tons of cement in 1990 to a bit over 500 metric tons of CO2 for a bit over 800 metric tons of cement in 2010.
Unfortunately, CSI’s numbers only cover a fraction of the global industry, and does not include China — a huge part of global cement production — and other large portions of the developing world. And world cement production reached over 3 billion metric tons in 2011 — which suggests that whatever progress is being made in terms of reduced carbon-intensity is being undone by sure volume.