New Biotech Companies Aim to Shrink the Carbon Footprint of Cement

  Bioconcrete is grown from bacteria    Photo: Jeremy M. Lange for the Wall Street Journal

Cement accounts for 8% of the annual emissions of carbon dioxide globally and reducing the carbon emissions from the process of making it has been a tough nut to crack, The Wall Street Journal reports. But now climate-conscious entrepreneurs are working to develop three new construction materials that could replace cement (read more about them here) that have a much lower carbon footprint, but construction companies have so far been reluctant to incorporate these new materials because of the perceived risks, according to The Journal.

Why This Matters:  More than four billion metric tons of cement are produced each year and all by the same process — so “fixing” the way cement is made to lower its carbon footprint would be a huge breakthrough, not to mention potentially quite profitable for the technology developer given the global demand for this basic building block.  Finding a way to safely begin to incorporate these new technologies into structures is a key next step.  But it must be more than just risk aversion — otherwise, we would never have made the construction advances we enjoy today.  This is where the government can help — and one company’s contract with the Air Force to “grow” the material to make military-grade runways should be the model.  We need to build on their efforts, so to speak!

Three Cement Substitutes

  1. Bioconcrete:  A North Carolina startup called BioMason started by a woman in her spare bedroom is one of a few companies making “bioconcrete,” which uses bacteria to grow cement bricks in a process that emits no carbon dioxide.  All you do is add water and it grows – like a “chiabrick” — and requires no heat so it is easy and inexpensive.  And scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder are creating building blocks or bricks from calcium carbonate, which is what makes limestone solid.  These bricks and blocks actually absorb carbon during the “growing” process so making them is a carbon sink, and they may be able to “grow” to repair their own cracks.
  2. Carbon Dioxide Injection – This process used carbon dioxide captured from industrial processes and injects it into a cement mixture, that triggers a mineralization process that mimics the formation of limestone, and the resulting bricks are virtually identical to concrete bricks.   A UCLA professor has founded a company, CO2 Concrete LLC, that takes carbon dioxide emissions directly from factories.
  3.  Concrene – A startup called Concrene Ltd., is mixing concrete with graphene, a super-strong, super-thin material developed in the 2000s at the University of Manchester.  The resulting product is a stronger brick that uses less concrete.  Graphene at the time of its invention was very expensive — it cost around $1,000 a kilogram — but in recent years prices have plunged, making it a viable alternative now.

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