June 16, 2017: Grow Your Bricks and Monitor Your Energy

I have written before about the global need to find alternatives to concrete. In this Newsletter from April 2015 I wrote about a wonderful bank building I was involved with in Missoula, Montana that didn’t use any Portland Cement or standard concrete in its construction. Instead we used a 100% recycled mixture of fly-ash (a by-product of coal-fired power plants) and crushed glass. I still have a little piece of that material sitting on the desk in front of me.

A terrible photo of a wonderful material.

A terrible photo of a wonderful material.

It might not look like much but this material is revolutionary. As far as I know, this was the first modern commercial building in the world to be built entirely without Portland Cement.

Why does that matter?

Because Portland Cement and concrete production are responsible for somewhere between 5 and 10% (depending on which study you read) of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. About half of those emissions come from the mining, refining and processing of the raw materials (limestone, sand, and gravel). The other half come from the process of calcination of the limestone which releases carbon dioxide.

For this reason, concrete is a major global problem in search of a solution. And today I was sent this article from the US Public Broadcasting Service about a new way to ‘grow’ concrete without emitting carbon dioxide in a process very similar to the way sea shells and coral reefs are formed.

BioMASON’s innovation hinges on a rod-shaped bacteria called Bacillus. The organism creates a microenvironment that enables the formation of this calcium carbonate [limestone] crystal,’ said Michael Dosier, chief technology officer at bioMASON and Ginger’s husband. ‘That’s effectively how it’s evolved in nature over billions of years.’

But rather than take months or years to harden, bioMASON’s bacteria cement finishes the deed in two to three days. The whole process happens at room temperature, without the need for burning fossil fuels or calcination.’

But wait… there’s more….

bioMASON’s microbe not only skips the high heat, it also absorbs CO2 from the air to make the calcium carbonate’

That’s right, not only does it not emit any of the CO2 of normal cement production, it actually absorbs Co2 in the hardening process. So it’s potentially carbon positive!

To make bricks, bioMASON engineers start by pouring a pitcher of primed bacteria into a mixer full of foundation material…The nestled bricks slide out of the hopper like bread rolls and get rolled into a shipping container, where they harden over three to four days.

The inventor of this process, architect Ginger Krieg Dosier, gives a lengthy explanation of its development in the following TED talk which runs for about twelve minutes.

If that’s too long for you, here’s a shorter but infinitely more annoying YouTube video about the technology. (Sorry I couldn’t find anything better except the video that is included in the original article from PBS).

In the future, the company plans to put the entire assembly line — mixer, hopper and all — into shipping containers, so that biocement can be made anywhere.

‘We don’t need a fuel source. We don’t need high energy, so we are looking at being able to detach,’ Ginger said. And by doing so, they may cement a brighter future for our planet.

All puns aside, this is a very promising development and I’d be interested in trying to bring this technology to Australia.

New Energy Monitoring Option

In our Newsletter on Feb 2nd I wrote about how we use three bits of technology to help us get the best performance out of the Passive Solar Greeny Flat. One is our weather monitor which, among lots of other information, tells us what the indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity are at all times. The second is the weather forecast which we check online at least a couple of times a day. And the third is our energy monitor. In that Newsletter I suggested that it would be wonderful if someone made a gadget that displayed all three of these readouts on one screen that we could place in a prominent location in the house and refer to it whenever we wanted to know what’s going on and what’s likely to happen in the next few days. Here’s my ‘artists’ impression of what this might look like.

The gadget that every home needs!

The gadget that every home needs!

I wish I was able to report that my dreams had all come true (yes, I know, it’s pathetic that my dream is to have a combined energy and weather monitor/forecaster device) but sadly no. However I can report that there is a new and interesting energy monitoring option to consider, and this one is made in Australia!

Introducing the Wattcost Energy Monitor

The developers of the Wattcost system.

The developers of the Wattcost system with the device itself.

Currently I use a Wattson Meter as my energy monitor but they’ve gone out of business. I have friends who use the Efergy System and the Smappee Energy Monitor and are reasonably happy with the results and there are numerous other options. Now, into that mix we can add the Wattcost monitor which integrates with your smartphone to offer the following features (according to their website).

Live monitoring

See the real-time result of your solar export savings and grid import costs.

Intelligent alerts

Get alerts when your solar system fails or appliances are accidentally left on.

Community sharing

Learn how to maximise your savings from our active solar community.

Personalised savings

Compare & switch to the solar plan with savings to match your lifestyle.

Budget tracker

Avoid bill shock forever with live budget tracking and intelligent alerts.

Improve your footprint

Offset the rest of your energy emissions with
1-click tree planting.

That all sounds pretty good but one of the most attractive things about it is that you can install it yourself and don’t need to pay an electrician to do it. According to this article from Startup Daily:

The mobile platform behind the device is able to show a consumer which devices are chugging the most power and make recommendations to help them save energy.

The device is also able to notify a user through their mobile if a device has accidentally been left on, curing that paranoia felt in winter when you forget if you turned the heater off before you left for work.

However, one of the most appealing facets of the IoT device, believes Wattcost cofounder David Soutar, is its tiny design and the fact it can be attached to a powerbox without the need of an electrician, energy company, or IoT professional.

“Part of the challenge of the project is that we wanted it to be a full consumer product that they could install themselves. As soon as you get an electrician or someone else to install it, you’ve already lost the consumer selling proposition, from a price and inconvenience factor. That showed up really really early. We knew we needed to develop something for a consumer,” he said.

“So essentially it’s a little camera sensor that you stick on the front of your meter. It works on a meter anywhere in the world, whether it one of the old spinning disk types or one of the new electronic types.”

I’ll leave it to you to make up your own mind whether the Wattcost is the right one for you, but I certainly encourage everyone to get some sort of energy monitor installed in their house. Personally I’m going to tough it out with my outdated Wattson meter until someone comes up with the integrated energy and weather monitor that I dream of.

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