A group of researchers and students are using living organisms that exist all around to make one of the most common building materials in a more sustainable way.
“When we look around us at cement and concrete, it can be easy to forget that cement is the second most used material on earth after water. Its impact is huge,” said Chelsea Heveran, an assistant professor at Montana State University.
The current way cement is made takes a lot of energy and fossil fuels.
One report by the Chatham House shows about 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year comes from cement production.
“The impact of this is so large that it’s driving us to wonder if we can't make a more sustainable building material by looking outside the use of cement,” Heveran said.
It’s an issue Heveran, along with other researchers and students at the Center for Biofilm Engineering, are trying to tackle.
"What we’re trying to do here is find the optimal conditions we can use to grow these fungus,” said Erika Espinsoa-Ortiz, a research assistant professor at Center for Biofilm Engineering
Beakers contain different fungi living in different environments to see what works best. They are using a process called biomineralization, which works at room temperature.
“Biomineralization is common in nature. So, we talk about biomineralization, you can think about shells, you can think about bones, you can think about some geological formations,” Heveran said.
To test strength, they take the fungi or bacteria, add minerals, mix it up and pour it into wood chips to see how they hold together.
This process can be useful to fix problems like soil stabilization or plugging fractures in oil and gas lines to reduce contamination. Adrienne Phillips calls it using the power of biology to help with industrial problems.
“The advantage of using this bacteria is that they’re very small — on the order of 2 microns — so very much thinner than even a human hair,” said Phillips, an associate professor at Montana State University.
She said small business BioSqueeze has used the lab’s research to plug over 50 oil and gas wells so far.
Even with harnessing these age-old, natural processes, environmental scientist Peter May said the idea faces some challenges.
“That’s one of the key things, though, is scaling. And, you know, bacteria grow very fast, fungi grow pretty fast,” said May, an assistant research professor at the University of Marylan. “You can't really scale that up into the real world to make it functional if you don't have a lot of this material to do this with.”
The lab is still experimenting and testing the strength of possible materials for solutions we could see all around us in the future.
“We don't know all the things we can do with fungi within building material yet," Heveran said. "But we’re starting to learn more and more about the organisms that we’ve started with, that we’ve started our investigation with, are capable of."