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A cheaper, quicker, greener way to make tiles

Deakin Bio's biotech keeps the ovens switched off

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Deakin Bio has a cheaper, quicker, greener way to make tiles

Deakin Bio founder Aled Roberts in his workshop

In summary:

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Nestling in the post-industrial, inner-city sprawl near Manchester’s Piccadilly Station, is an unassuming lockup where a startup is working on a product it believes could transform the production of something we see in almost every building: tiles.

Rather than blast them in environmentally unfriendly ovens, Deakin Bio is working on a solution that is faster, cheaper, and greener than traditional ways of making the tiles that adorn bathrooms, kitchens, and floors, around the world.

This way of making tiles involves biotech, to create a novel way of binding the materials in the tile together without the need for heat.

“Manufacturers can use us as a drop-in replacement for normal ceramic tile manufacturing, turn off their kilns and save on their gas bill and their CO2 emissions,” says Aled Roberts, founder and CEO of Deakin Bio. 

How to make a tile, the quick and cold way

Roberts shows me around the startup’s workshop. He shows me how the starting point is waste plaster from the ceramics industry. Deakin Bio recycles plaster casts that are no longer usable by their makers. Letting a startup take the plaster away for free certainly saves on disposal costs.

The plaster is ground into a fine power, which is blended with a patent-pending bio-based binder, plus some water and benign additives. The tile is then compressed and dried, during which time it hardens. A bio-based coating is then added as a final, protective touch.

The result is tile that Roberts says an independent assessment found has a 94% lower carbon footprint than traditional tiles. 

It’s faster too, thanks to not needing to heat them, as Roberts explains:

“It takes us seconds to print out a tile, which is the rate-limiting step on a production line. And then it goes into a drying section where the tiles are dried in the same conditions as for normal ceramic tiles, but then we don't need to go through the kiln step. 

“One tile on its journey through the production line, including the drying, is probably about a couple of hours. But with a continuous process of tiles being spat out at the end.”

Tiles in Deakin Bio’s workshop

The bio-based product Deakin Bio uses is the ‘secret sauce’ that makes this method of tile making so different.

Understandably, Roberts wants to keep his cards close to his chest about exactly how it’s made, but he says the current binder they’re using is based on a low-value side product from the brewing industry.

To give an idea of what’s going on here without explaining too much, he says previous binders they experimented with included a byproduct from cooking chickpeas, called aquafaba, which is used as an egg white substitute in vegan cooking.

They have also experimented with a protein produced by microalgae, which Roberts says might have potential for use in the future.

Tiles drying in Deakin Bio’s workshop

The story so far

Roberts has a PhD in materials chemistry from the University of Liverpool, which saw him working with lithium ion batteries. 

Having enjoyed the materials side of this more than the electrochemistry, he moved to the University of Manchester, where he shifted his focus to the interface between biotech and materials engineering.

“I was working with people who were making synthetic spider silk proteins, and my job was to try to spin it into fibres,” he says.

“That was really tricky, so then we pivoted to making glues from synthetic spider silk and other synthetic proteins. And then eventually, we found that these glues were particularly good at sticking glass together.”

And with glass being similar to sand, Roberts says the team began to consider how they could be used in construction materials like bio-concrete.

The Covid lockdowns changed Roberts’ path, however.

“I was bored at home, and I decided to buy some lab equipment and do my own experiments. And because of the constraints of Covid, I could only use very cheap materials; literally kitchen cupboard ingredients like chickpeas, and things like recycled plaster.”

These cheap materials led to a cheap final product, which engaged the latent entrepreneur inside Roberts, and he decided to build a business around it.

Seeking a generic startup name that would allow the company to pivot if needed, Roberts took his own middle name–Deakin–and chose the name Deakin Bio.

The startup now has its minimum viable product tile manufacturing process in place and is looking to scale up production.

Roberts says the startup has found a ceramic tile manufacturer in Italy that wants to licence the technology and help them overcome the challenges of making the tiles at scale, such as making adjustments to the powder used to make the tiles, so it doesn’t get stuck in machines.

And there’s more!

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