Researchers have given bricks a second life with recycled blocks that don't require firing.
Bricks are still vital to construction, but they require kiln energy to make and are strangely unrecycleable.
Like a cake pop, the new bricks involve combining broken up bricks and a pasty binder.
Bricks are one of the oldest building technologies in the world and one of the very first fully fabricated ones, made by mixing ingredients together like the earliest ceramics. But one scientist suggests we’re missing some ways bricks could be dramatically better.
After thousands of years, is the new brick worth a try?
🔬 Everything is science. Let's tinker together.
Geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineer Gabriela Medero made her way to the faculty at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland after growing up in Brazil. She channeled her efforts to modernize the brick into founding a startup called Kenoteq, whose pilot product, the K-Briq, is a “brick alternative” made with 90 percent construction waste material and uses over 90 percent less carbon.
The K-Briq, seen above, is different in almost every stage. “To make it, construction and demolition waste including bricks, gravel, sand and plasterboard is crushed and mixed with water and a binder. The bricks are then pressed in customized molds. Tinted with recycled pigments, they can be made in any color,” CNN reports. The K-Briqs don’t even need to be fired in a kiln.
Medero’s home base in Scotland plays a part in the support for Kenoteq. The Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce lobbying organization says in a statement that it’s trying to bring all of Scotland forward into the energy future, which includes high environmental costs related to construction.
“Kenoteq has received funding and support from Zero Waste Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre and the Royal Academy of Engineering,” the Chamber of Commerce explains.
The issue with bricks isn’t immediately obvious—they’re tough, they seem to last a very long time, and they’re already made with materials that are fairly natural. Right?
But one large problem is that bricks are almost impossible to recycle. Fired clay products are chemically different from natural clay, and the water resistance and durability of that final product is one reason bricks are so successful. If bricks dissolved in water the way clay does, we’d be swimming in our apartment buildings and city halls. Our bricks would be as developed as children’s mud bricks in the yard.
Bricks can be strictly, directly recycled by careful removal of mortar and other detritus. This is so fussy and cost-inefficient, though, that it only makes sense for applications like historically accurate rebuilding of period projects. And bringing your own old bricks is like showing up to Starbucks and asking your barista to reuse your clean paper cup for the next customer: no one can be sure what’s in or on that cup. (For the record, you shouldn’t even refill your own empty Starbucks cup with hot coffee—the waterproofing liner isn’t meant for repeated use and can break down.)
Breaking bricks into pieces and using that as a new material is a way to divert brick waste from construction dump sites and save the energy of making new bricks instead. Kenoteq and Scotland’s energy programs say this means K-Briqs are part of a circular economy approach, where a second or third life for a material means it can go back into the economy without the cost of something new.
This year’s Serpentine Pavilion is planned with K-Briqs and natural cork. And while K-Briq is a proprietary product for now, the idea of it could inspire more and similar recycled brick materials.
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