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Concrete Reimagined with Bioconcrete

In 2015, Hendrik Jonkers became a finalist for the European Inventor Award. For what did he earn this distinction? He had created a sustainable material, bioconcrete, that was expected to target serious issues in the construction industry.

Bioconcrete was inspired by the idea of self-healing. The quicklime in ancient Roman concrete, once thought to be the product of sloppy mixing, turned out to be the reason for their durability. They would chemically precipitate calcite to fill in microcracks in concrete, making Roman concrete structures so durable and longstanding. Jonkers himself was inspired by the self-healing of the human body through mineralisation. Bioconcrete is made like any other block of concrete, except it is mixed with certain types of bacteria and nutritional calcium lactate. The bacteria used, typically from the Bacillus genus, must form endospores and naturally undergo the Microbially Induced Calcite Precipitation (MICP) process. Endospore formation is the result of extreme stress on the bacteria, basically forcing it to enter a shell in which it is dormant, but safe. This way, the bacteria inside the concrete can last more than two centuries. The MICP process, caused by natural metabolic processes in the bacteria, is essential to the self-healing aspect. Whenever a small crack is formed, the bacteria reactivates, taking in the calcium lactate, and making calcite to cover the crack. 

Bioconcrete addresses two major issues. The first is economic: Concrete maintenance and repair is a major expense since it is the most ubiquitous construction material in the modern day. The second issue is that the concrete industry is responsible for up to 11% of carbon emissions due to the extreme heat required for the creation of industrial Portland cement. In short, the constant need to mix new concrete contributes to climate change, a known cause for many environmental issues. If society doesn’t have to keep replacing the concrete in most infrastructure, then the financial and environmental cost goes down, and a more sustainable future is in reach. 

Most of all, bioconcrete is inspirational. The circumstances of its invention encourage outside-of-the-box thinking and a reflection upon history to gain valuable insights. Much like most scientific advancements, the technology itself has a long way to go. It can be stronger, faster, and more effective, but the constant room for improvement is a good thing, and aspiring STEM students can learn a lot from this innovative material.

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