Tata Fellow Michael Laracy is reimagining India’s most basic building material and helping factories reduce their waste footprint in the process.
For centuries the red clay brick has been, quite literally, the building-block of India. Simple, cheap, and locally available, these bricks are ubiquitous across the country, and continue to be manufactured by the billions using techniques largely unchanged since the time of the British Raj.
However, as India’s population booms, the traditional kiln-fired brick is being produced on a scale never seen before, and the boom is having unexpected consequences. A number of environmental drawbacks have arisen, such as topsoil depletion from the harvesting of clay and greenhouse gas emissions due to the massive energy demands of the kilns. Once taken for granted as the nation’s primary building material, many manufacturers and policymakers are now wondering whether the red clay brick can continue to serve rising demand.
At the same time, a seemingly unrelated problem is plaguing Indian industry: the country’s 800 paper mills are burning cheap raw materials to generate energy, and together they can produce as much as 80,000 tons of waste ash every day. Much of this ash is unusable and sent to landfills, occupying valuable farmland at great expense to paper mill owners.
A team at MIT, including Tata Fellow Michael Laracy and Postdoctoral Associate Thomas Poinot, looked at these problems and spotted an opportunity to solve both at once: Using industrial ash to develop an alternative building material to the red clay brick.
The result of their research is the eco-BLAC brick, a low-cost, environmentally-friendly masonry unit. Formulated using industrial ash, the brick employs “alkali-activation technology, a low-energy process,” according to Laracy. While traditional bricks must be kiln-fired at 1000°C, consuming huge amounts of fuel, the eco-BLAC brick can be cured at ambient temperatures, massively reducing energy requirements. “We don’t need any firing or source of energy to cure the bricks,” says Poinot. Simultaneously, ash waste is being recycled, alleviating the burden of landfilling.
Using ash from paper mills in Muzaffarnagar and a formula of locally-sourced chemicals and minerals, Laracy and Poinot have been able to produce hundreds of high quality samples, gaining the attention of industrialists in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and even making an appearance on the local TV news.
“I am very hopeful for this project,” says Pankaj Aggarwal, chairman of the Paper Manufacturer’s Association of Uttar Pradesh. “These bricks are more even, cheaper in price, and the best thing is, we are using our waste that is being dumped right now.”
The MIT team, which also includes faculty members Charles Fine, Elsa Olivetti, John Ochsendorf, and Hamlin Jennings, has “the whole span of skills we need to be good at this project,” according to Poinot. For the last two years they have used the city of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, as a home base in India. Muzaffarnagar is home to more than 200 of the old-fashioned “bull ring” brick kilns, and to thousands of acres of land given over to ash landfills. It has proven to be a fertile testing ground for approaching this nationwide problem.
“The best thing about Muzaffarnagar is the friendliness of the people,” says Laracy. “Despite the language barrier, people want to help in any way they can.”
Aggarwal has been an enthusiastic supporter of the eco-BLAC project, putting his company’s laboratory space and industrial tools at the team’s disposal. In January 2015, Laracy and Poinot set up shop at Aggarwal’s paper mill and at nearby Deepak Ceramics, a producer of clay-fired bricks. They were able to hone their formula and manufacturing technique while producing eco-BLAC bricks under a variety of conditions.
“It’s great to have someone who believes in this project and will invest in it,” Poinot says of Aggarwal. “We have the freedom to be able to implement a pilot plant.”
The bricks have been subjected to a battery of tests, including compression, durability, and water absorption, with promising results. “In terms of strength I think we’re better” than the red clay bricks, says Laracy. They are currently subjecting the bricks to long-term durability tests, and plan to return to Muzaffarnagar in March to produce more full-size samples. They will also work with a team from MIT Sloan India Lab to fine-tune their business model, with a view toward commercialization of the eco-BLAC brick in the near future.
The team is confident that the brick will perform as well as, or better than, the kiln-fired variety, but at far less cost to the environment. Aggarwal agrees, saying, “Within the coming months, I think we will start making bricks.”
Laracy and Poinot’s unique approach to a multi-faceted problem has been recognized in the U.S. as well. They were named winners of the “Emerging Market” track at the $100K Accelerate Entrepreneurship Competition, and are one of 11 overall finalists. (There were 170 entrants.) They will present to judges on February 20th at MIT.
Photos by Michael Laracy and Ben Miller.