Bio-concrete

Bio-concrete

As part of an ongoing partnership to turn the built environment into a climate solution, SOM and Prometheus Materials are developing an algae-based construction material that absorbs carbon—forming the basis for carbon-negative buildings.

Research Facts
  • Collaborators
    Prometheus Materials Living Materials Laboratory, University of Colorado Boulder
Research Facts
  • Collaborators
    Prometheus Materials Living Materials Laboratory, University of Colorado Boulder

Towards a carbon-negative architecture

With 40 percent of global carbon emissions coming from the building industry and from buildings themselves, SOM is determined to develop new methods and materials in the pursuit of creating zero-carbon and carbon-negative buildings.

Prometheus Materials, a start-up company spun out of a research program at the University of Colorado Boulder, has teamed up with SOM to explore and establish applications for this new generation of biological materials that could turn the construction industry into a positive force in the fight against climate change.

Bio-concrete team
Chas Peppers, Venture Architect, SOM; Loren Burnett, President, CEO and Co-Founder of Prometheus Materials; and Yasemin Kologlu, SOM Design Principal, with a bio-concrete prototype. Lucas Blair Simpson © SOM

Approaching the whole-life carbon cycle

Bio-concrete, developed with Prometheus, applies solutions found in nature. The algae-based building material uses two natural mechanisms to sequester and store CO2 in material form: photosynthesis (the absorption and storage of CO2 during the growth of the algae) and carbonate mineralization (CO2 reacting with a metal to create a mineral during the curing process). Applied to a concept like SOM’s Urban Sequoia—in which buildings function as trees in a whole-life carbon cycle, capturing CO2, purifying the air, and regenerating the environment—the carbon captured through bio-concrete can be put to use in various industrial applications, forming the basis of a new carbon-removal economy.

© Brooks Freehill
© Brooks Freehill

New design possibilities

The research team is developing bio-concrete—and other biogenic construction materials—to be market-ready and meet performance standards of architects and engineers. Prometheus currently grows algae and manufactures the blocks in its factory before shipping to customers, but aims to improve flexibility and reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions by providing only the biogenic components of the mix along with a proven mix design. This will allow the product, much like traditional concrete, to be fabricated using local resources close to its end-use site.

Francisco López de Arenosa © SOM

Bio-concrete can be developed to take on different colors and textures, and much like traditional concrete,  it can be modeled into any shape. As the development of this new biogenic living building material has progressed, the team is achieving compressive strengths similar to that of traditional concrete. Additionally, this new material appears to have improved tensile properties and fracture resistance—opening up possibilities for new design approaches and forms that harness its unique qualities. The building blocks for a zero-carbon and carbon-negative built environment will look as distinctive as the designers using the material want them to be.

We know how to design with concrete. We know how to design with timber. But now we’re working with a type of new material which has its own strengths and unique qualities.