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N.C. startup develops a way to turn sand into bricks with bacteria instead of heat

By Mary-Russell Roberson

Five thousand years ago in the Indus Valley of Pakistan and India, people fired blocks of mud to create bricks. In 2014, we’re still making bricks in much the same way. If Ginger Krieg Dosier has her way, that’s about to change.

Dosier, 36, is the founder and CEO of bioMASON, a young North Carolina company that is developing a new way to make bricks. Inspired by nature, the production process is intended to be easier on nature as well.

The old way of making bricks uses fire (combustion of wood, coal or other fuel), which gives off carbon dioxide, one of the main gases that contribute to climate change. More than 1 trillion bricks are produced in the world yearly, emitting an estimated 800 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to Dosier.

Dosier, who has a master’s degree in architecture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan, and a bachelor’s from Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction, wondered whether it would be possible to create durable building materials without combustion. After all, a clam creates its own shell, and coral creates its own reef.

“Why can’t we grow a material similar to seashells and coral reefs?” she asked herself. “If it is possible to do this in the oceans at ambient temperatures, how can we learn from that process and mimic it on a commercially viable scale?”

It might seem odd for an architect to wander into materials science, but Dosier said, “The power of architecture is not just about making buildings; it’s about making things better, designing spaces that function better.” For Dosier, that means designing and producing better materials to make those buildings.

As she investigated ways of growing bricks, Dosier wasn’t stymied by her lack of scientific background. Instead, she read books, audited courses, and worked with professors in biology, chemistry, and materials sciences at N.C. State, where she was a visiting assistant professor in the School of Design from 2005 to 2007. She learned a bacteria called Sporosarcina pasteurii produces a cement that can turn sand into sandstone.

Sporosarcina pasteurii poses no threat to health, according to José Bruno-Bárcena, an assistant professor of microbiology at N.C. State University and one of Dosier’s early mentors.

“It is a safe bacteria,” he said, adding, “Most of the bacteria are not pathogenic organisms. The amount (of bacteria species) that are not safe is really very, very small.”

Experiments – and a recipe

Dosier began experimenting in her spare bedroom in Raleigh with concoctions of sand, Sporosarcina pasteurii, water and other ingredients. The bacteria need a source of nitrogen for fertilizer and a source of calcium to produce calcium carbonate, the same material that makes up seashells and coral reefs.

After plenty of false starts and mistakes, Dosier worked out a recipe by which she could reliably produce a brick in several days at room temperature.

In the meantime, she and her husband, Michael Dosier, had moved to the United Arab Emirates, to teach architecture at the American University.

“We were young with no kids and wanted a different experience,” she said. “There’s a lot of interesting (architectural) work happening in that part of the world and it’s an extreme environment. We wanted to be part of something growing fast.”

Now the Dosiers are back in North Carolina, and the thing that’s growing fast is their own company, bioMASON, which they founded in 2012. They began in space leased from First Flight Technology Incubator in Research Triangle Park and with funds from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the Cherokee-McDonough Challenge. This month, they are moving into space on NCSU’s Centennial Campus and a production facility in Raleigh. They will soon be up to seven employees.

Most bricks are produced in the region where they will be used, so bioMASON’s business plan is to license the ingredients and the process to existing brick manufacturers. Imagine a brick-growing “greenhouse,” in which molds filled with sand (or similar aggregate) and bacteria would be irrigated with water enriched with sources of nitrogen and calcium. The bacteria would produce calcium carbonate to cement the sand together. After several days, the irrigation would be turned off, at which point the bacteria would die, leaving behind a hard, durable brick.

Plus for environment

Not only does this brick-making process eliminate the carbon dioxide emissions associated with firing, it removes carbon from the atmosphere because the bacteria are responsible for the production of calcium carbonate formation, which is made of calcium, carbon, and oxygen.

“In a sense, it sequesters carbon dioxide,” Dosier said.

The process also has the potential to remove pollution from the environment in other ways. For example, urea from agricultural animal waste can be used as the nitrogen source. It might even be possible to design the irrigation system to use – and treat – wastewater.

No material lasts forever, but Dosier intends for bioMASON bricks to be at least as durable as current building materials. She is currently testing bioMASON bricks in atmospheric chambers designed to mimic thousands of years of weathering. If the tests show any weaknesses, she’ll tweak the process until she’s convinced the bricks will withstand wind, rain, acid rain, sleet, snow, freezing, thawing, and heat waves.

She also intends for the cost of producing these bricks to be comparable to current production technologies. She says the cost per brick has fallen “tremendously” since her earliest efforts, and she expects that trend to continue.

And, according to Dosier, “Bricks are just the beginning.” The same process could be used to create many items currently made of concrete, such as paving stones and cinder blocks.

The company is riding a wave of excitement and interest generated by first place finishes in two recent high-profile contests: the Cradle to Cradle Innovation Challenge in November (which included a prize of $125,000) and the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge in September (which included a prize of 500,000 euros – about $680,000).

The increased exposure and the incoming funds add fuel to Dosier’s fire. She said she’s working 16 to 18 hours a day, “building and growing (the company) as quickly as possible. The challenge is fighting the clock. The science is here; the goal now is to get this out in the world.”

If she has any doubts, she doesn’t show them.

“We have a goal and a mission to get this in the world successfully,” she said. “It will happen.”

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