CEMENT FROM BACTERIA THAT “EATS” POLLUTANTS
Danish cement industry IBF invests in technology that mimics the function of coral reefs
In a rural area of Denmark there is a cavernous warehouse, where a myriad of bacteria are kept, which are necessary to deal with the huge emissions of the cement industry. Danish industry giant IBF Group and US start-up BioMason are seeking to show how a new cement mix, based on natural phenomena, can avoid the huge energy needs and high carbon dioxide pollution associated for centuries with cement production.
Traditional cement being able to ensure such characteristics is based on Portland cement, which uses limestone as its base, which when heated releases carbon dioxide. Specific strains of bacteria in the right environment can mimic the specific characteristics of standard cement without many contaminants, but said cement takes the form of tile. The bacteria, it should be noted, absorb dioxide, turning it into calcium carbonate, while the given chemical reaction is what enables coral reefs to solidify under the sea. Teams of biologists, technicians and engineers are working together in Ikast, Denmark and North Carolina, USA to replicate the process, making innovative interventions. At this time the two aforementioned companies IBF and BioMason intend to quickly start producing large quantities of polished concrete tiles, which bind carbon dioxide and do not release it when manufactured.
The cement tiles are being installed in small batches, but before they are set off for customers in Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain, teams of experts will have to scrutinize them and fix any imperfections in the coming weeks. In contrast to the tests followed in the case of software, the sheer naturalness makes this particular production “frighteningly difficult”, points out the general manager of American BioMason, Bert Brigman.
“It’s a complex thing, it’s not just working with a file and changing code – this is about ‘changing mechanism, changing biology,'” he points out. Brigman is an electrical engineer and was previously involved in overseeing Tesla’s Model 3 production. “You need to change tangible things and that takes time.” BioMason founder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dozier knows all this. “If you try hard, you will succeed,” is its motto – and this was followed in the months the company worked on the first successful prototype. This early experiment was conducted in the empty room of her home when she was lecturing at an architecture school in the UAE. “I think it was just a matter of stubbornness, but also that the world needed something like this,” notes Ginger Krieg Dozier of her initial decision for the company. As she adds, cement was the engine of industrialization and without it humanity would have remained stuck in the 18th century.
However, innovation since then has not been as rapid, he notes. BioMason’s company’s goal is to reduce emissions from the cement industry by 25% by 2030. Today in Denmark the equivalent of almost 800 kg of carbon dioxide is created per ton of cement produced. And this is a consequence of the intense heat required in the process. Reducing these pollutants requires either using more RES, in a country where half of all electricity is already generated from wind and sun. Otherwise, the inputs of materials must be diversified, and that is where BioMason focuses its work. Dozier points out that Danish cement maker IBF’s decision to invest so heavily in partnering with her own company has facilitated talks with other potential partners from around the world in recent months. The nascent market for BioMason’s product is notable especially in countries such as Denmark, where the changing regulatory framework favors innovation in the construction industry. In January, new rules pushed by the government mandated that large new buildings awaiting planning permission must meet standards for low annual emissions, even during the construction phase. Finally, it is stated that these new limits, which are in force, will be revised downwards regularly in the coming years.