Bio-inspired ceramics: how DeakinBio are tackling one of the most polluting industries worldwide

From a cellar to a railway arch, this is how Dr Aled Roberts is making more sustainable tiles from everyday ingredients and byproducts from industry.

DeakinBio_ERB6405HeroImage Aled Roberts, in a white lab coat, leans agains a doo
DeakinBio_ERB640­5HeroImage Aled Roberts, in a white lab coat, leans agains a door fram. Text overlaid on the image reads ’sustainable bioceramics from household ingredients’
When lockdown started, Dr Aled Roberts headed to his cellar.

Limited to ingredients he could find in his house - baking soda, brick dust, protein powder, and the odd leaf - he picked up a coffee grinder, his microwave, and his KitchenAid mixer and started to turn his basement into a basic laboratory.

"I called it the Cellar of Materials Discovery. I remember thinking that the main benefit of this approach would be that the products I developed would automatically be low cost and commercially feasible, because they would only depend on cheap, everyday materials."

So, while the rest of us were binge-watching TV series, or learning to hate sourdough, Aled was making an exciting breakthrough. He discovered that the ingredients he was working with held promise; mixed together, they created a strong, concrete-like substance that could make a big difference to the polluting concrete and ceramics industries. Soon after, during another lockdown in January 2021, he founded DeakinBio.

Starting up the production line

After years of publishing papers and filing patents, the Manchester-based researcher was becoming impatient with the lack of industrial uptake of his inventions. So, he took DeakinBio on a journey from the Manchester Insitute of Biotechnology (MIB), through the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC) - where he benefitted from the industry expertise of the GEIC team - to eventually secure his own workshop in a small railway arch just behind Piccadilly train station. This was the chance Aled was waiting for, a chance to make a difference.

DeakinBio’s latest invention is the material Eralith. Eralith is a green alternative to the tiles you usually see in kitchens and bathrooms. It has a recycled content of over 98% and is made almost entirely from recycled plaster, which is combined with other bio-based ingredients (such as byproducts from the brewing industry) to make a durable product with a fraction of the environmental impact of traditional tiles.

Ceramic tiles have a huge carbon footprint at over 16 kg CO2 per square meter. If the world is serious about meeting its emissions reduction targets, and mitigating the worst effects of climate change, then finding low-carbon alternatives to conventional construction materials will have to be part of the solution. Eralith promises just that, with tiles made from the material having a 94% lower CO2 footprint.

What’s more, Eralith does not rely on high-energy kiln firing to produce a usable material. It can simply be baked at the normal temperatures you’d use in your own oven for a Friday-night pizza.

I’m really motivated by my research having a practical application - in some sense I’m more of an engineer than a scientist. And I realised that if I wanted to see my research in the real world, I was probably the person who would have to drive it.

Looking back in time

Much of Aled’s work is inspired by history, how humans have used the natural materials around them to create products, tools, and other daily commodities from what nature provides. By emulating natural materials like seashells, tooth enamel, and pearls, Aled is able to construct his materials in minutes, rather than having to grow them more gradually, combining waste mineral powders with bio-based binders to create bioinspired composites.

But of course, this wasn’t just a history lesson for Aled. As a Research Fellow in the Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), when he embarked upon this journey, Aled already had years of biomaterial development experience behind him. He’d previously been involved in developing synthetic biomaterials from spider silk , alongside protein-based bio-adhesives and bio-composites - experience he was determined to put to good use.

Aled made international headlines in 2021 with his first material, AstroCrete , where he experimented with combining a protein from human blood with a compound from urine, sweat or tears, to glue together simulated moon or Mars soil (regolith). This produced a material as strong than ordinary concrete with a compressive strength as high as 25 Megapascals (MPa) - about the same as the 20-32 MPa seen in ordinary concrete - which has the potential to be used in future space colonisation missions.

Out of the kiln and into the oven?

With the cement and concrete industries contributing 8% of the global CO2 emissions, it’s easy to understand why Aled’s materials have created such excitement.

But while his goals are noble, his journey out of the Cellar of Materials Discovery hasn’t been easy. As a new start-up, moving away from academia and navigating the business world was no mean feat. Aled had to learn the tricks of the trade while simultaneously developing his material. But, with the launch of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Catalyst (IBIC) there will be more ways for DeakinBio to benefit from the growing industrial biotechnology ecosystem in the north-west.

"I’m a start-up, rather than a spinout, which means I’ve done most of the business stuff solo. This has been hard, but it has given me a lot of creative freedom which has been fun." says Aled. "while I didn’t get to benefit from some of the support offered to spinouts, I did benefit from starting within the University’s ecosystem. Developing my ideas in an international hub such as the MIB and then taking up labspace in the GEIC were both opportunities that gave me the confidence to take my product out into the world."

Now, Aled and his team are looking forward to a brighter world of carbon-reduced construction. "We’re hoping to close our first round of pre-seed funding in the next few weeks, which will give us funds to continue development and scale-up our technology. Our aim is for these tiles to become a small piece in the puzzle towards solving this huge global challenge." And with a new business partner onboard who can help with the paperwork Aled can get back to what he does best, tinkering in his much larger cellar (railway arch), to create the next generation of bioinspired material products.

For Dr Roberts, what began in a Manchester basement with baking soda and a dream of making positive changes, may soon lead to a more environmentally-friendly future for humanity, and perhaps even to construction projects far beyond the boundaires of our planet.

Biotechnology is one of The University of Manchester’s research beacons - exemplars of interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-sector partnerships that lead to pioneering discoveries and improve the lives of people around the world. For more information, head to The University of Manchester’s Biotechnology page.