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Biopolymers: Cement Replacement: Industrialized Natural Resources for Architecture and Construction

Cement production has a significant impact on the
environment. With an annual production exceeding
3 billion tonnes,1 cement consumption reaches an
average 500 kilograms per person per year or more
than 1,000 kg per person and year in urban areas,
which is more than the average person eats. The
production of cement requires significant amounts
of resources (limestone, clay, sand) and energy
(mostly coal or lignite) and results in significant
amounts of carbon dioxide emissions (about 1 ton
CO2 per ton of cement).2
Biopolymers are explored in search of sustainable
alternatives to replace cement as a binder in con-
struction materials. Produced by living organisms,
biopolymers are composed of small molecules
(monomers), which are bonded together by cova-
lent bonds to form larger molecules. Biopolymers
are classified in three groups based on their mono-
mer molecules:3 polynucleotides, like human DNA,
consist of 13 or more different small molecules;
polypeptidesare, short polymers of amino acids, are
the basic components of proteins; and polysaccha-
Biopolymers: Cement Replacement
Leon van Paassen and Yask Kulshreshtha
CoRncrete samples based on various
1 Sand
2 Corn flour
3 Water
4 Mould
5 Thermal treatment
6 Cultivated building element
7 Biological decomposition
CoRncrete is a hardened solid
material produced by mixing corn
starch with sand and water and
heating the mixture in a microwave or
Biopolymers: Cement Replacement
1 Sand
2 Corn our
3 Water
4 Mould
5 ermal treatment
6 Cultivated building element
7 Biological decomposition
rides, like cellulose, starch or alginate, are long
linear chains of carbohydrate molecules, such as
glucose or fructose.
Biopolymers show a large variety of properties and
consequently lend themselves to different applica-
tions. Cellulose for example, which is the most
common organic compound found on Earth, forms
a hard and strong, solid material that provides, as
one example, for the structure and strength of
wood. Alginate, on the other hand, which is being
considered a potential alternative for cement, is
water-soluble. The properties of biopolymers de-
pend on their monomers and the amount and type
of bonds between these.4
In nature, there are many examples where biopoly-
mers act as cementing agents, dating as far back as
4 billion years, to the earliest moments of Earth’s
existence. In those times, micro-organisms lived in
the shallow seas along the old continents. By ex-
creting biopolymers, they attached themselves
onto rocky surfaces. This process created thin ad-
hesive films, which trapped suspended sediments
in order to form dome-shaped, thin-layered rock
structures known as stromatolites. Still today,
many organisms use excreted biopolymers to in-
crease their adhesion to surfaces, such as molluscs
and oysters in the seas or termites and ants on
While the main application for natural biopolymers
is in food production, their renewability and bio-
degradability make them an interesting material for
industrial applications as well. The current industri-
al exploitation in this field focuses mainly on their
use in biodegradable plastics as a replacement for
polystyrene- or polyethylene-based plastics. Appli-
cations of biopolymers in the building and construc-
tion industry include their use as a binder in ther-
mally insulating composites, an admixture for
viscosity modification in concrete, a modifier in
asphalt, or a retarder in the cement hydration pro-
At this shore, micro-organisms
created thin adhesive films which
trapped suspended sediments to form
dome-shaped, thin-layered rock
structures known as stromatolites.
Biopolymers: Cement Replacement
Biopolymers as cement replacement in
The potential performance of biopolymers as a
cementing agent can be demonstrated using corn
starch.5 Mixing corn starch with sand and water
and heating the mixture in a microwave or oven
results in a hardened solid material, named CoRn-
crete, with unconfined compressive strengths
reaching values up to 20 mega Pascal. Optimum
strength is obtained at a starch-to-sand ratio of 1
to 5 and a water content of 16 per cent.6 At room
temperature, the starch is poorly soluble in water,
however, when mixed with sand and water at the
optimum ratio, the mixture forms a viscous liquid
with self-compacting behaviour. The resulting
densely-packed aggregates are one of reasons for
the material’s high compressive strength after bak-
ing. During heating, the starch molecules dissolve
partially and form a gel, which glues the sand
grains together and hardens when dried out. Next
to the mixing ratio of sand, starch, and water, the
strength of the hardened CoRncrete depends on
the grain size distribution of the aggregate sand, as
well as the heating procedure and time.
Alginate is another biopolymer which can be used
as cementing agent. It is found in a wide variety of
seaweeds inhabiting temperate as well as cold
oceans.7 The advantage of using alginate is that the
seaweed from which it is extracted grows in the
sea and does not require land surface to be culti-
vated. Alginate also differs from starch in that it is
soluble in water. However, when mixed with dis-
solved calcium ions, it will form a gel as the multi-
valent ions form electrostatic bonds between the
long-chained alginate polymers. In trial experi-
ments, dry sand was mixed with 1 per cent alginate
powder, percolated with seawater, and simply
dried in open air. The resulting sand samples tested
at more than 800 kilo Pascal.
Biopolymers can also be grown within a material.
Percolating a solution of soluble substrates through
permeable granular aggregates activates indige-
nous bacteria to grow and produce inorganic min-
erals or extracellular polysaccharides (EPS).8 The
application of bio-mineralization in ground engi-
neering applications has been demonstrated at
large scale, using microbially-induced calcite pre-
cipitation (MICP).9 EPS has not yet been shown to
result in sufficient strength improvement to be
used as a construction material, particularly in wet
environments. However, it has been shown that
biofilms can sufficiently strengthen sandy soils to
reduce coastal erosion or suppress windblown
dust.10 Besides acting as adhesive component
themselves, biopolymers can improve cementation
indirectly by controlling the precipitation process
of inorganic minerals.
Materials cemented with biopolymers such as algi-
nate or corn starch are strong in compression as
long as they are dry. However, once exposed to
water, they weaken and disintegrate easily. Further
development is required to enhance the durability
of biopolymer-cemented materials. Another chal-
lenge is the scaling-up to construction applications.
Although the temperatures required to heat and
dry biopolymer-cemented materials are much low-
er than for the production of ordinary cement or
the fabrication of clay bricks, the heating procedure
so far cannot be applied at the scale of a building.
Scanning electron microscopic
(SEM) image of biopolymers and
calcite crystals grown by feeding
nitrate-reducing bacteria within sand.
Large-scale biocementation experi-
Biofilms can sufficiently strengthen
sandy soils to reduce coastal erosion
or suppress windblown dust.
1 Nutrient solution is pumped to the injectors
2 Injectors release nutrients into soil
3 Nutrients pass through soil
4 Depleted nutrient solution is pumped out
5 Nutrient solution circulates until specified values are reached
Test setup of bio-mineralization
1 Nutrient solution is pumped to the
2 Injectors release nutrients into soil
3 Nutrients pass through soil
4 Depleted nutrient solution is
pumped out
5 Nutrient solution circulates until
specied values are reached
Biopolymers: Cement Replacement
The sustainability of biopolymers generated from
agricultural resources such as corn starch is debat-
ed, as their cultivation requires a significant
amount of land, nutrients, and fertilizers. In that
respect, the exploitation of biopolymers from sea-
water organisms such as alginate seems especially
promising. Still, the industrial production of bio-
polymers for non-food applications competes with
the food market and may contribute to rising glob-
al food prices. However, recent advances in bio-
technology enable the extraction of biopolymers
from waste materials, such as the stems and roots
of plants, or composted sludge from wastewater
treatment plants.11 Even when combined, the quan-
tities of biopolymers generated from the sea-based
cultivation of alginate and an optimal exploitation
of land-based organic waste streams will not be
sufficient to cover the current consumption of ce-
ment. There is no doubt, however, that in combina-
tion with other alternative resources and a shift
towards a circular building industry, the cultivation
of biopolymers is one step towards a sustainable
Bio-mineralization in ground engi-
neering applications has been demon-
strated at a full scale, using microbi-
ally-induced calcite precipitation
A setup of nozzles and pipes perco-
lates soluble substrates through the
ground to activate indigenous bacte-
ria in the ground.
Full-scale field test installation.
1 United States Geological Survey
(2011), “USGS Mineral Program
Cement Report” (Jan 2011)
2 EIA – Emissions of Greenhouse
Gases in the U.S. 2006-Carbon
Dioxide Emissions. US Department
of Energy.
3 Mohanty, A. K., Misra, M. and Drza,l
L.T. (2005), Natural Fibers, Biopoly-
mers, and Biocomposites. Boca
Raton, FL: CRC Press.
4 Mohanty, A. K., Misra, M., and Drzal,
L. T. (2002), “Sustainable Bio-Com-
posites from Renewable Resources:
Opportunities and Challenges in the
Green Materials World”, Journal of
Polymers and the Environment 10
(1): 19–26.
5 Kulshreshta, Y. (2015), “How to make
CoRncrete” – Instruction video
watch?v=hq5Iq7iCs; Kulshreshtha,
Y., Schlangen, E., Jonkers, H. M.,
Vardon, P. J., and van Paassen L. A.
(2017), “CoRncrete: A corn starch
based building material”, Construc-
tion and Building Materials (under
6 Kulshreshta, Y. (2015), “CoRncrete:
A bio-based construction material”,
MSc thesis Civil Engineering and
GeoSciences, TU Del, e Nether-
7 Cybercolloids Ltd., Introduction to
alginate, Technical article, http://,
last accessed on 10 November 2016;
Cybercolloids Ltd., e history of
alginate chemistry, Technical article,
downloads, last accessed on 10
November 2016
8 Van Paassen, L. A., Daza, C. M.,
Staal, M., Sorokin, D. Y., Van der
Zon, W., and Van Loosdrecht, M. C.
M. (2010), “Potential soil reinforce-
ment by microbial denitrication”,
Ecological Engineering 36 (2), 168–
9 Van Paassen, L. A., Harkes, M.P., Van
Zwieten, G. A., Van der Zon, W. H.,
Van der Star, W. R L., and Van Loos-
drecht, M. C. M. (2009), “Scale up of
BioGrout: a biological ground rein-
forcement method”, Proceedings of
the 17th international conference on
soil mechanics and geotechnical
engineering, 5–9 October 2009,
Alexandria, Egypt; Van Paassen, L. A.
(2009), “BioGrout: ground improve-
ment by microbial induced carbon-
ate precipitation”, PhD thesis, Del
University of Technology, e Neth-
10 DeJong, J. T., Soga, K. S., Kavazanji-
an, E., Burns, S., van Paassen, L. A.,
Fragaszy, R., Al Qabany, A., Aydilek,
A., Bang, S. S., Burbank, M., Caslake,
L., Chen, C.Y., Cheng, X., Chu, J.,
Ciurli, S., Fauriel, S., Esnault-Filet,
A., Hamdan, N., Hata, T., Inagaki, Y.,
Jeeris, S., Kuo, M., Larrahondo, J.,
Manning, D., Martinez, B.,
Mortensen, B., Nelson, D., Palomino,
A., Renforth, P., Santamarina, J. C.,
Seagren, E. A., Tanyu, B., Tsesarsky,
M., and Weaver, T. (2013), “Biogeo-
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11 Jiang, Y., Marang, L., Tamis, J., van
Loosdrecht, M. C. M., Dijkman, H.,
and Kleerebezem, R. (2012), “Waste
to resource: Converting paper mill
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Biopolymers: Cement Replacement
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Consideration of soil as a living ecosystem offers the potential for innovative and sustainable solutions to geotechnical problems. This is a new paradigm for many in geotechnical engineering. Realising the potential of this paradigm requires a multidisciplinary approach that embraces biology and geochemistry to develop techniques for beneficial ground modification. This paper assesses the progress, opportunities, and challenges in this emerging field. Biomediated geochemical processes, which consist of a geochemical reaction regulated by subsurface microbiology, currently being explored include mineral precipitation, gas generation, biofilm formation and biopolymer generation. For each of these processes, subsurface microbial processes are employed to create an environment conducive to the desired geochemical reactions among the minerals, organic matter, pore fluids, and gases that constitute soil. Geotechnical applications currently being explored include cementation of sands to enhance bearing capacity and liquefaction resistance, sequestration of carbon, soil erosion control, groundwater flow control, and remediation of soil and groundwater impacted by metals and radionuclides. Challenges in biomediated ground modification include upscaling processes from the laboratory to the field, in situ monitoring of reactions, reaction products and properties, developing integrated biogeochemical and geotechnical models, management of treatment by-products, establishing the durability and longevity/reversibility of the process, and education of engineers and researchers.
Full-text available
Currently new ground reinforcement techniques are being developed based on microbially induced carbonate precipitation (MICP). Many studies on MICP use microbially catalyzed hydrolysis of urea to produce carbonate. In the presence of dissolved calcium this process leads to precipitation of calcium carbonate crystals, which form bridges between the sand grains and hence increase strength and stiffness. In addition to urea hydrolysis, there are many other microbial processes which can lead to the precipitation of calcium carbonate. In this study the theoretical feasibility of these alternative MICP processes for ground reinforcement is evaluated. Evaluation factors are substrate solubility, CaCO3 yield, reaction rate and type and amount of side-product. The most suitable candidate as alternative MICP method for sand consolidation turned out to be microbial denitrification of calcium nitrate, using calcium salts of fatty acids as electron donor and carbon source. This process leads to calcium carbonate precipitation, bacterial growth and production of nitrogen gas and some excess carbon dioxide. The feasibility of MICP by denitrification is tested experimentally in liquid batch culture, on agar plate and in sand column experiments. Results of these experiments are presented and discussed.
Full-text available
Biogrout is a new ground improvement method based on microbially induced precipitation of calcium carbonate (MICP). When supplied with suitable substrates, micro-organisms can catalyze biochemical conversions in the subsurface resulting in precipitation of inorganic minerals, which change the mechanical soil properties. This study focuses on one of these biochemical conversions: microbially catalyzed hydrolysis of urea inducing calcium carbonate precipitation in sand. This Biogrout process comprises the following steps: Sporosarcina pasteurii, a bacterial species containing a large amount of the enzyme urease are cultivated, injected in the ground and supplied with a solution containing urea and calcium chloride. Urease catalyzes the conversion of urea into ammonium and carbonate and the produced carbonate precipitates with calcium as calcium carbonate crystals. These crystals form sticking wedges between the sand grains increasing the strength and stiffness of the sand. The remaining ammonium chloride is extracted and disposed. The thesis comprises the necessary steps to develop this process from a laboratory experiment to a practical application, culminating in an unprecedented 100 m3 field scale experiment in which 40 m3 of sand was biologically cemented within 12 days stretching over a distance of 5 m. Engineering tools are established such as empirical correlations between the CaCO3 content and strength or stiffness, which enable to design treatment procedures for several emphasized applications, such as increasing the stiffness of railroad embankment or improving the stability of limestone room and pillar mines. Some of the remaining issues of this Biogrout process include the required removal of ammonium chloride and the use of axenically cultivated aerobic organisms with consequent decaying urease activity in time due to a lack of oxygen in the subsurface. To avoid both these issues the suitability of other possible MICP processes for ground improvement is evaluated and the potential of the most promising alternative, denitrification, is shown in laboratory experiments.
Starch is a natural polymer which is commonly used as a cooking ingredient. The renewability and bio-degradability of starch has made it an interesting material for industrial applications, such as production of bioplastic. This paper introduces the application of corn starch in the production of a novel construction material, named CoRncrete. CoRncrete is formed by mixing corn starch with sand and water. The mixture appears to be self-compacting when wet. The mixture is poured in a mould and then heated in a microwave or an oven. This heating causes a gelatinisation process which results in a hardened material having compressive strength up to 26 MPa. The factors affecting the strength of hardened CoRncrete such as water content, sand aggregate size and heating procedure have been studied. The degradation and sustainability aspects of CoRncrete are elucidated and limitations in the potential application of this material are discussed.
In this study we investigated the feasibility of producing polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) by microbial enrichments on paper mill wastewater. The complete process includes (1) paper mill wastewater acidogenic fermentation in a simple batch process, (2) enrichment of a PHA-producing microbial community in a selector operated in sequencing batch mode with feast-famine regime, (3) Cellular PHA content maximization of the enrichment in an accumulator in fed-batch mode. The selective pressure required to establish a PHA-producing microbial enrichment, as derived from our previous research on synthetic medium, was validated using an agro-industrial waste stream in this study. The microbial enrichment obtained could accumulate maximum up to 77% PHA of cell dry weight within 5 h, which is currently the best result obtained on real agro-industrial waste streams, especially in terms of biomass specific efficiency. Biomass in this enrichment included both Plasticicumulans acidivorans, which was the main PHA producer, and a flanking population, which exhibited limited PHA-producing capacity. The fraction of P. acidivorans in the biomass was largely dependent on the fraction of volatile fatty acids in the total soluble COD in the wastewater after acidification. Based on this observation, one simple equation was proposed for predicting the PHA storage capacity of the enrichment. Moreover, some crucial bottlenecks that may impede the successful scaling-up of the process are discussed.
Sustainability, industrial ecology, eco-efficiency, and green chemistry are guiding the development of the next generation of materials, products, and processes. Biodegradable plastics and bio-based polymer products based on annually renewable agricultural and biomass feedstock can form the basis for a portfolio of sustainable, eco-efficient products that can compete and capture markets currently dominated by products based exclusively on petroleum feedstock. Natural/Biofiber composites (Bio-Composites) are emerging as a viable alternative to glass fiber reinforced composites especially in automotive and building product applications. The combination of biofibers such as kenaf, hemp, flax, jute, henequen, pineapple leaf fiber, and sisal with polymer matrices from both nonrenewable and renewable resources to produce composite materials that are competitive with synthetic composites requires special attention, i.e., biofiber–matrix interface and novel processing. Natural fiber–reinforced polypropylene composites have attained commercial attraction in automotive industries. Natural fiber—polypropylene or natural fiber—polyester composites are not sufficiently eco-friendly because of the petroleum-based source and the nonbiodegradable nature of the polymer matrix. Using natural fibers with polymers based on renewable resources will allow many environmental issues to be solved. By embedding biofibers with renewable resource–based biopolymers such as cellulosic plastics; polylactides; starch plastics; polyhydroxyalkanoates (bacterial polyesters); and soy-based plastics, the so-called green bio-composites are continuously being developed.
Conference Paper
In the BioGrout process, sand is strengthened to sandstone with a strength, which is controllable from 0.3 to 30MPa (unconfined compressive strength) using biobased methods in which calcium carbonate (calcite) is precipitated in situ. The spectacular increase in strength, coupled to a limited reduction in porosity and permeability, makes the method a promising alternative to chemical grouting methods. The product is applicable in many geo- and civil-engineering applications, like strengthening of dykes, the production of underwater reefs or reducing risk of piping. A first generation of the process based on the hydrolysis of urea has been applied on a 100m3 scale. Denitrification is one of the microbial processes which can be used as a BioGrout process. In this process, calcium nitrate and calcium-fatty acids are converted to form calcite by denitrifying microbes. These organisms are already present in the subsoil in low numbers, but are selectively enriched upon addition of the substrates the required substrates can be produced from chalk, manure and waste streams from food industries or tanneries. When nitrate is completely reduced, nitrogen gas is the only side product, emphasizing the sustainability of this new ground improvement method. In this contribution, the governing principles behind the method are elucidated and applications are discussed.
Scale up of BioGrout: a biological ground reinforcement method
  • L A Van Paassen
  • M P Harkes
  • G A Van Zwieten
  • W H Van Der Zon
  • W R L Van Der Star
  • M C M Van Loosdrecht
Van Paassen, L. A., Harkes, M.P., Van Zwieten, G. A., Van der Zon, W. H., Van der Star, W. R L., and Van Loosdrecht, M. C. M. (2009), "Scale up of BioGrout: a biological ground reinforcement method", Proceedings of the 17th international conference on soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering, 5-9 October 2009,
CoRncrete: A bio-based construction material
  • Y Kulshreshta
Kulshreshta, Y. (2015), "CoRncrete: A bio-based construction material", MSc thesis Civil Engineering and GeoSciences, TU Delft, The Netherlands.
Introduction to alginate
  • Cybercolloids Ltd
Cybercolloids Ltd., Introduction to alginate, Technical article, http://, last accessed on 10 November 2016; Cybercolloids Ltd., The history of alginate chemistry, Technical article, downloads, last accessed on 10 November 2016