In a recent experiment, researchers developed a mixture that can turn itself into brick and make copies of itself when broken. This is an exciting option with the potential to reduce the use of exploited resources. While concrete is a popular material used for building structures, the resources needed aren’t sustainable in the long term. With self-healing qualities, the bacteria-filled bricks pose as a durable form for long-lasting structures.
How It’s Made
Living building materials (LBMs) were made by inserting a unicellular cyanobacterium (Synechococcus) that converts CO2 to sugars during photosynthesis into a 3-D sand-hydrogel scaffold. This specific bacterium is also known to survive extreme temperatures and conditions, making them perfect for reliable construction materials. The hydrogel allowed the bacteria to multiply and mineralize into a hardened form.
“We use photosynthetic cyanobacteria to biomineralize the scaffold, so it actually is really green. It looks like a Frankenstein-type material,” said senior author Wil Srubar, who heads the Living Materials Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to create — something that stays alive.”
The living properties of these living bricks is a major strength when it comes to repairs. Using environmental switches, such as a change in temperature or humidity, LBMs were regenerated. Scientists first tested this over a seven day period, using three “parent bricks” and resulted in eight successive generations.
Trade-Off—Concrete vs. Synechococcus
Bricks made out of living building materials provide a variety of benefits–both environmentally and economically. These self-building bricks require less raw materials and cost a lot less. These factors make it a possible consideration for building in areas where resources are scarce, such as military installations in desolate areas or human settlements on another planet.
Alternative products are making their way into the mainstream when it comes to structures like sustainable homes. However, concrete is a form that doesn’t require special conditions once hardened. Tthe biological aspect of Synechococcus is still finding its balance with the mechanical portion of the structure. Where the bacteria gains its strength from humidity the gelatin performs best when dry. Scientists believe additives can enhance the bacteria’s tolerance to dry conditions.
This is an innovative step toward approaching how we create towns and neighborhoods from a new and sustainable approach. “We are just trying to bring building materials to life, and I think that is the nugget in this whole thing. We’re just scratching the surface and laying the foundation of a new discipline. The sky is the limit,” Srubar mentions.
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