Ginger Krieg Dosier was raised in Alabama, where construction brick is as common as the red clay it’s made from. But Dosier, a 33-year-old assistant professor of architecture at American University in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, is attempting to refine a process that, if successful, could supplement the use of oven-fired bricks with a product whose origin sounds more like science fiction than masonry.
Over the past few years Dosier has been experimenting with microbial-induced calcite precipitation, in which calcium chloride and urea interact with bacteria cultures and sand microbes to bind grains like an adhesive. The process takes about seven days to “grow” into a brick-like substance.
Her goal is to develop a more environmentally acceptable way of making this staple commodity. The 1.23 trillion clay bricks manufactured annually worldwide create at least 800 million tons of carbon dioxide. Such greenhouse emissions might be significantly reduced if a substitute brick of equal strength could be cultivated and then mass-produced.
Dosier is “racing” to get her bioengineered brick ready for some level of production within two years. She was crushing core samples last fall in anticipation of compression tests, and sometime this year she plans to build a small outdoor wall using this product. What’s surprised Dosier so far, she told Builder in late October, is how “hearty” the bacteria are. “They don’t have to be babied.” They can survive in non-sterilized media and exposure to tap water.
But any practical application of this process is still a ways off. Dosier needs to determine if the process will work in colder climates (she thinks so, but slower). She also needs to figure out how to capture the nitrous oxide that’s produced when bacteria cultures interact with ammonia produced by the process. “This is all theoretical until we close that loop,” says Dosier.
Since winning Metropolis magazine’s $10,000 Next Generation Design award last May, Dosier has received “overwhelming feedback” from potential collaborators, investors, and funding sources. She’s been working with “a number of networks,” both academic and engineering, to share research. Her newfound celebrity has put Dosier in contact with some unexpected parties, including individuals from North Carolina’s swine industry who offered to supply her with pig urine to extract urea.
Dosier expects that developing nations—which account for around 70 percent of annual brick production, but whose product is generally substandard compared to what’s made in the U.S. and Europe—will be where her brick finds its initial demand. “I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails from India,” the world’s most voluminous brick maker, she says.