A better way: How we are revolutionizing the concrete industry with biology
Nature produces most – if not all – the materials we need. The instructions for how to make materials without causing harm are all around us in the natural world. Biotechnology extracts those instructions to offer us blueprints.
Without these blueprints, manufacturers have developed synthetic processes to approximate natural materials. Many still do. For example, the current process for producing traditional Portland cement, accounts for approximately 8% of global CO2 emissions, according to a Chatham House Report.
We researched natural ecosystems like coral reefs and understood nature can make cement without releasing byproducts or harming their surrounding environment.
So we asked ourselves: can we grow cement?
In our exploration, we applied biotechnology to develop a biocement that does not produce waste. With a goal to invent a zero-emissions cement product, our current end product has 99.4% less carbon than traditional cement.
Here is how we developed the cement with the lowest carbon footprint on the market.
All cement starts with calcium
Calcium is the core element necessary for any cement production. There are two primary sources of calcium on the planet: calcium carbonate and calcium chloride. The bulk of the world’s calcium is contained in calcium carbonate, which is composed of calcium, carbon, and three oxygens.
Calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is one of the most useful and versatile materials known to mankind. It comprises more than 4% of the earth’s crust and is found throughout the world. Its most common natural forms are chalk, limestone, and marble. In nature, it is produced by the sedimentation of the shells of small fossilized snails, shellfish, and coral over millions of years.
Calcium carbonate mined from nature is the base of ordinary Portland cement. The end product is Calcium Silicate Hydrate (CSH). When manufacturers produce Portland cement, they need calcium oxide. To get it, they break calcium carbonate into calcium and carbon. They then keep the calcium and throw away the carbon, emitting it into the atmosphere.
At bioMASON, we make our own calcium carbonate rather than mining it from nature. In our production plants, bacteria feed on agricultural waste to produce calcite (a form of calcium carbonate) deposits. The entire process happens at room temperature over two to three days – all without burning fossil fuels or creating CO2.
Then carbon is added
Traditional Portland cement manufacturers dig up calcium carbonate then burn it at about 850 degrees Celsius (~1,562 degrees Fahrenheit) using either powdered coal, oil, alternative fuels, or gas. That creates calcium oxide and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is exhausted into the atmosphere. The calcium oxide is combined with additional materials like silicate.
It is then fired at another 1,400-1,450 degrees Celsius (~2,700 degrees Fahrenheit). At that temperature, clinker forms, creating the base material for Portland cement. Water is added, activating the calcium oxides and starting a mineral transformation process to create CSH. The final product is a gel Crystalyn, which is basically what cement is.
For every kilogram of Portland cement produced, approximately one kilogram of CO2 is emitted. About half of each kilogram (500 grams) of CO2 is released from the calcium carbonate. The other half is emitted from the fossil fuel combustion that creates the temperatures needed for calcination and clinker formation.
There are several companies working to make Portland cement less harmful to the environment. Carbon-cured concrete being one of the popular processes, which locks in additional CO2 before the concrete cure.
bioMASON takes a different approach. Rather than making traditional cement less harmful, we are revolutionizing it all together. By leveraging biology, we created an innovative product that is not reliant on fossil fuels or finite resources.
bioMASON biologically produces the same starting material used by traditional Portland cement. We start with calcium salts from salt mines, which are a carbon-free calcium source. When we add water, calcium ions dissociate and float for collection. Our bacteria then combine the calcium with urea—our carbon source—to produce our biocement.
The calcium carbonate bonds with aggregate
The mineral composition of bioMASON cement is simple. It is 15% calcium carbonate and 85% recycled waste aggregate. Rock is mined to produce aggregates for concrete or asphalt production. A lot of fine particles come off during that mining process that are too small to use in those products. We use those particles as our aggregate, or base product.
The bacteria develop a biofilm on the surface of the aggregate particles. Each bacteria becomes a nucleation site for the biocement crystal formation. As biocement grows, it creates a three-dimensional lattice structure which bonds the loose aggregate into a solid composite material.
Biotechnology reduces energy consumption
Energy is used to change material from one state to another. Since the industrial revolution, manufacturers have primarily burnt fossil fuels for energy. McKinsey & Company says, “The cement industry alone is responsible for about a quarter of all industry CO2 emissions, and it also generates the most CO2 emissions per dollar of revenue.”
By leveraging biology, bioMASON is no longer in that equation. Microorganisms need small quantities of elements like carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen to convert materials from one state to another. Those resulting materials are complex, interesting, and just as viable as those created synthetically. We are focused on cement, but the opportunities presented in the field are vast.
Biomanufacturing has the capacity to replace the use of fossil fuels in most of the products we use today. Economics is preventing wider adoption of biotechnology because fossil fuels are cheap and the industry is already scaled to produce at the rate we need it. But those tables are turning.
Looking to the future
In 2017, the biotechnology industry was already contributing more than 2% of the U.S. GDP with revenues of at least $388B, according to author and scientist, Rob Carlson. He predicts that in the future, 100% of materiality in the world will be produced using biotechnology.
Companies like Ecovative Design are using mycelium to produce everything from foam insulation to packaging to bacon, and beyond. Bolt Threads is harnessing proteins found in nature to create fibers and fabrics without causing harm to the environment. Clothing giant H&M Group is taking actions to become climate positive and fully circular across its value chain by 2040.
Biotechnology has seen the most explosive gross in pharmaceuticals, of course. A 2019 New York Times article said, “Acquisitions of American biotech companies are surging, and so are the prices that buyers are willing to pay.” “Major drug makers are in a race to find their next blockbuster. As the complexity of drugs has increased, though, so has the cost to develop them. That has made buying a biotech company with a promising candidate an increasingly popular way in recent years for the largest pharmaceutical companies to replenish their drug pipeline.”
Over the next few years, we’ll see continued application of biotechnology across industries, markets, and sectors.
For bioMASON, having a product that builders can touch, feel, buy, and use within their projects today is critical. We are seeing a massive shift in favor of biotechnology and a focus on reducing carbon emissions. We are responding by increasing our scale and growth. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. With research and development underway, we see so much opportunity for an entirely new approach to creating required materials that are better for people, profits, and the planet.
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Written by Shannon Byrne