Human Bones + Nanoengineering = Green Concrete?

Greenconcrete_2 The following post may seem a little esoteric, if not absolutely dry, but don’t be intimidated.  Bear with me a second as the idea opens up towards the end of this article.  Every year, roughly 1.89 billion tons of cement (the main component of concrete) are manufactured.  Cement accounts for about 7-8% of all human-generated CO2 emissions (a main ingredient in the recipe for climate change).  Here’s what happens: cement is made by burning fossil fuels to heat a limestone and clay powder to 1500 °C.  Then, the resulting cement powder is mixed with water and gravel and the invested energy in the powder is released into chemical bonds that form calcium silicate hydrates.  Those calcium silicate hydrates bind the gravel to create concrete. 

So, the idea goes, human bone could show us how to manufacture concrete with less CO2 emissions.  Human bone achieves a similar packing density to concrete at the nanoscale, but with human bone, this packing density is achieved at body temperature with no extra release of CO2.  Stated otherwise, bone strength is achieved naturally without having to heat powder at a high temperature, and thus, without the CO2 release.  The problem is, however, the hardening of apatite minerals in the bone takes a long time.  Say, a month or more. 

This is where nanoengineering comes into play.  With nanoengineering, the goal would be to mimic the process of bone formation and accelerate that to form a new building material.  If something like this were possible, it would offer the promise of reducing the amount of CO2 that is released in the atmosphere.  Imagine being able to produce a concrete substitute without having to burn all those fossil fuels to get it.  That’s quite the invention.   

The above concepts were published in MIT’s Technology Review and are the intellectual property of Franz-Josef Ulm, a professor in civil and environmental engineering. I think the study of bone properties to create green concrete is quite compelling and interesting.  [free registration required]

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  • Stephen

    This is really interesting and seems like an extremely worthwhile research pursuit. I’m reminded of how, back in college, one of my professors was trying to use recycled glass as the basis for an advanced type of concrete, but his research was pretty much a total failure. However, the potential that bone properties offer is, as you call it, much more compelling than old bottles of Coke.

    On a similar note (and I’m not sure if you’ve posted about it before), LEED Platinum hopeful Bank of America Tower in Manhattan is using a mixture of cement and blast furnace slag byproduct to manufacture its concrete, which helps reduce the amount of CO2 that’s released during the process (and actually makes the concrete stronger).

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