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Concrete giants look to bacteria as solution to emissions problem

by Willem Marx Bloomberg News (WPNS) | May 7, 2023 at 2:03 a.m.
A technician measures newly pressed bricks. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Imke Lass

In a rural part of Denmark, a cavernous warehouse holds vast vats of bacteria -- what a transatlantic corporate partnership is hoping will be the solution to the cement industry's huge emissions problem.

Denmark's concrete manufacturing giant IBF and U.S.-based start-up Biomason together aim to show that a new kind of cement mix, based on naturally occurring phenomena, can avoid the huge energy requirements and high carbon dioxide emissions that have characterized cement production for centuries.

To achieve its strong, cohesive properties, traditional concrete has long relied on a type of cement called Portland, which uses limestone as a base. When that limestone is heated, carbon dioxide is released as a byproduct. Specific types of bacteria, in the right environment, can mimic the crucial properties of Portland cement, but with the carbon cycle reversed. The bacteria draw in carbon dioxide, then convert it into calcium carbonate.

This kind of chemical transformation is what allows coral reefs to grow and solidify underwater. And teams of biologists, technicians and engineers collaborating in Ikast, Denmark, and North Carolina plan to replicate that process -- with a few tweaks.

It's essentially 3D printing with a biological base. This spring, the two companies intend to start cranking out industrial quantities of polished concrete tiles that will lock up carbon for the length of their product life spans.

The tiles are made in small batches, but before they are shipped out to expectant customers in Denmark, the Netherlands and the U.K., teams of specialists must spend the coming weeks ironing out any remaining production wrinkles.

Unlike testing software, the sheer physicality makes this drive for consistent production "horrendously difficult," according to Biomason's Chief Operating Officer Bert Bruggeman. "This is not going into a file and changing code. This is like, 'I need to change a machine. I need to change the biology,'" said Bruggeman, an electrical engineer who previously helped oversee production of the Model 3 at Tesla. "You've got to change real things, which then takes time."

Biomason's founder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier knows this all too well.

"If you try hard enough, you'll figure it out," became a mantra during months spent developing the first successful prototype.

That initial experimentation took place in her spare bedroom while she was lecturing at an architecture college in the United Arab Emirates.

"I think it was just stubbornness," she said of her early decision to launch the business. "Also just the fact that the world needs this."

Cement helped drive industrialization and without it, Dosier likes to say, humanity would be stuck living in 18th-century cityscapes. But innovation since then has not been fast enough, she insists, and Biomason's aim is to shave off a quarter of global cement production's carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

In Denmark today, roughly 1,760 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent are created for every ton of cement produced, in large part due to the intense heat involved in its creation. To reduce those emissions requires either more renewable energy -- in a country where half of all electricity is already generated from wind or solar -- or else the input materials must be altered. Biomason is focused on the latter. Dosier says the decision by IBF to invest so significantly in the partnership with her firm has helped facilitate conversations with other would-be collaborators around the world in recent months.

The potential market for the product is significant, particularly in a country like Denmark, where a changing regulatory environment is encouraging innovation in the construction industry. In January, government rules began to mandate that large new buildings hoping for permitting approval must meet low annual carbon emission thresholds – including during the construction phase -- and those new limits that will continue to ratchet down regularly over the next several years.

A generous dusting of snow covered the solar paneled roof and walkway as Biomason's top local technician Ole Dinesen arrived on a recent morning. He crunched alongside concrete-loaded pallets, assorted masonry and a jumble of gleaming metal pipes before entering the vast green warehouse filled with construction workers, forklift drivers and machine operators.

Tall with short blond stubble and an earnest demeanor, Dinesen passed a piece of paper taped to two large vats near the entrance, marked as "fertilizer production" for the bacteria. Another sign read "feeding the bugs," and in this tank, a kilometer of pipes will automatically dispense regular doses of culturing material that helps bacteria grow. The bulky containers are like giant Petri dishes that will be endlessly topped up by culturing material dispensed through vast Whip-it style nozzles.

Wood chips and recycled rainwater from the roof will help create the warm, moist environment that's necessary to help grow the right bacteria. They in turn form the basis for a cement-like treacle that will bind together the concrete's other ingredients -- sand and small rocks -- delivered by truck to one end of the building's production line.

Upon arrival, the rocks and sand, known in the industry as "aggregate," will get heated in gunmetal gray silos that can carry 27 tons of material. In the center of the room stands an enormous blender, where the aggregate will be combined with the biologically produced cement.

It's a similar mixing process that can be found across several existing warehouses on IBF's vast campus, but here it will avoid the addition of typical Portland cement. The blender can churn out more than 1600 pounds of combined concrete each cycle, dumping the mixture in a steady stream from a conveyor belt onto a slab below, where heavy blue and orange machinery will flatten and shape each tile.

The company estimates some 783 trillion bacteria will be required for each production cycle. Once dried, the tiles must be sanitized to kill off any that remain. A large, canary-yellow machine then uses roughly 1.3 gallons of water each second to polish the tiles before they are packaged up. It's the last step of a three-day process.

The production for this new creation requires relatively few changes to the hardware used to make traditional cement, but the concrete it ultimately produces will emit far fewer carbon dioxide molecules. The longer-term business strategy, Bruggeman added to a soundtrack of drilling and clanking, is for Biomason to replicate this in similar concrete manufacturing plants elsewhere, earning technology transfer fees and royalty payments calculated by volume.

Biomason has won backing from several venture capitalists, including a $65 million funding raise last year that saw participation from the parent company of Danish health-care behemoth Novo Nordisk, San Francisco-based Celesta Capital, 2150 and Hartree Partners. Among their earliest customers is department store giant H&M, and Dinesen said the firm is also prioritizing partnerships with local architects who can market their concrete products to customers looking to create buildings or projects with smaller carbon footprints.

But whether these new materials can be insured is key, according to Tim Broyd, a professor at University College London's Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction. The industry mind-set is famously conservative, he says, and "someone has to underwrite that cost of risk."

The kind of product Biomason is currently developing will be useful for concrete placed underfoot – like driveways or flooring, according to Broyd -- but will not work well for tall buildings, since the concrete it is helping produce lacks the sufficient tensile characteristics.

Biomason's Bruggeman acknowledges that as with any new kind of building material, significant technical challenges remain before the cement can be used interchangeably with existing, carbon-intensive cement. He says the decision to start with an attractive tile product that is not structurally significant is designed to avoid entering the kind of competitive marketplace where early cost pressures would squeeze the fledgling company's margins too aggressively.

The initial customer revenue may help build the kind of financial runway, Bruggeman adds, that will eventually help Biomason enter "bigger environments -- evolving and adapting" its cement technology to become an ingredient in stronger concrete mixes that are eventually used to build walls, roofs and other load-bearing structures.

  photo  The warehouse operated by start up Biomason and IBF in Ikast, Denmark. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Imke Lass
  photo  Ginger Krieg Dosier. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Imke Lass
  photo  A color mixing machine and aggregate hopper. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Imke Lass
  photo  Technicians at work. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Imke Lass

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