Researchers at Montana State University are studying the results of beneficial of bacteria by adding microorganisms to building materials. “We’re wondering if we can better use microorganisms like bacteria and like fungi to build building materials in a different way that have the potential to be reusable and to be recyclable,” said Chelsea Heveran, a professor of mechanical engineering who is leading an interdisciplinary team on the research.
From bridges to skyscrapers, concrete is ubiquitous in modern, human-built environments. It’s durable and cheap but also a big contributor to climate change, and some of the materials used to make it are getting scarcer. Researchers at Montana State University are trying to develop a sustainable alternative with microorganisms.
At MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering, Assistant Research Professor Erika Espinosa-Ortiz walks over to an incubator filled with glass chemistry flasks.“So all of our fungi and bacteria are growing here,” Espinosa-Ortiz says as she pulls out one of the flasks. Suspended in the liquid is a piece of metal with something growing on it.
“We have all sorts of fungi. Like this guy. You can see it looks completely different. This is black. This is a mold. Sometimes you can see black stains growing in your bathroom. It’s probably this kind. So we study all sorts of different fungi and we’re trying to see how they can be grown in different conditions for different purposes,” Espinosa-Ortiz says.
One of those purposes could be an alternative to concrete. Mechanical Engineering Professor Chelsea Heveran says making concrete requires a lot of energy and resources, like water and sand, and is responsible for about eight percent of human caused CO2 emissions each year.
“The fact is our built world right now is built on concrete,” Heveran says. “We’re running into a situation of increasing resource scarcity; we need to grow, right? And climate change is a major concern, and the inputs into cementitious systems, like cement and concrete, are becoming increasingly rare.”