Bones as a building material?
October 7, 2014 3:40 PM   Subscribe

How possible would it be to use ground bone as a building material? I know bones can make bone china, but can they be used to make, something more solid, say, cobblestones? or the walls to a house? A cement-like substance? Where can I find out more about the process/chemistry/engineering involved?

And no, I don't mean like this. I mean in such a way that you wouldn't know they were bones.

Sorry for the creepy question...but hey, it's almost Halloween!
posted by Calicatt to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not exactly what you're after, but blood was an ingredient in Roman cements/concretes.
posted by pullayup at 3:54 PM on October 7, 2014

According to this, you can use a mixture of rice husk and bone powder as filler in concrete.
Doesn't look like it's effective as anything other than a filler though (or a replacement for tricalcium phosphate?).
posted by Elysum at 3:56 PM on October 7, 2014

I am not an expert on biology-but I am on concrete (goes with being a civil engineer). IFIRC bones are primarily calcium carbonate which is also what some kinds of limestone are made out of which is what cement is made out of (at least modern portland cement). So if you processed the bones the same way you process limestone you would likely get a similair product. HOWEVER there are a LOT of other things in bones that might be not be desirable in the cement and might give you a inferior product (or a superior one for certain uses). ALSO it would take a LOT of bones to make up enough cement to matter-some of our larger industrial facilities are cement factories that are just huge-like seen from space huge. Like powerplants, they are placed close to a source of limestone and usually coal or natural gas due to energy required. Also it takes a LOT of limestone to make some cement so...not likely feasible from an economic standpoint.
posted by bartonlong at 3:58 PM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Shellfish and fish bone matter from Aboriginal middens (waste piles, sometimes vast ones, built up over many centuries) was a common material used in early European road building in Australia. Middens were also burned to create lime for mortar for brickwork.
As neither limestone nor chalk was to be found in the vicinity of Sydney Cove; oyster shells found in Aboriginal middens all along the coast were burnt for lime. When these were exhausted the bays and inlets were dredged for live oysters.
The lime was sold in Sydney for a shilling a bushel and a settlement for burning lime was established on the Hunter River in 1816. Convicts were employed burning lime from oyster shells in NSW, Melbourne and Moreton Bay (Brisbane) in the 1820s and 30s. The manufacture and trade of shell lime was continued by private settlers. Consequently shells can be easily seen in the mortar of older buildings in coastal and riverine New South Wales.
(These days Aboriginal middens and other Aboriginal places of significance are very strongly protected).
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:02 PM on October 7, 2014

IFIRC bones are primarily calcium carbonate

Hydroxyapatite, actually. Calcium phosphate with a hydroxyl anion thrown in for good measure. You can make a cement from calcium phosphate, too, but it's mostly used for orthopedic and dental surgery rather than building.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:17 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

My above comment may have been a little confusing/less informative - Tricalcium phosphate, which is often interchangeably used with Calcium phosphate, "is one of the main combustion products of bone (see bone ash).", so it was basically just the equivalent/appropriate search tem.

And yeah, plenty of results for calcium phosphate as dental cement, and in bone china (usually about 30% bone ash content BTW), not so many results for regular concrete, other than that link above.

Still, concrete is pretty heavy. Around 5% bone filler would add up to a lot of bone, very quickly.
posted by Elysum at 7:58 PM on October 7, 2014

FWIW, my quick back-of-the-envelope calculation says that my house (2200 ft^2) has about 7000 square feet of drywall, which would weigh close to 10,000 pounds.

A dry human skeleton weighs about 10 - 15 pounds, so you'd need at the very least hundreds of people to drywall your house with some sort of bone-derived drywall.

Houses are heavy.
posted by Hatashran at 8:44 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your informative answers! I know very little about building and this is helpful. Assuming you do have hundreds and hundreds of people's skeletons, do you think a bone based drywall is possible?

The context of this whole thing, for the curious, is my developing an imaginary city for a story--they're an extremely practical, unsentimental people, to the extent that is shocking to outsiders. One way I thought this might manifest is that they wouldn't want to just bury bones if they could put their dead to good use. On the other hand, they're not morbid, and even they would be creeped out by anything which was recognizably a skeleton.
posted by Calicatt at 4:54 PM on October 8, 2014

a better use for bones (economically anyway) is to grind them up and use them as fertilizer. It would take such a large effort to make enough cement out of them that it isn't worth the effort. Bone meal is some great fertilizer however and if the society has not invented the haber-bosch process yet fertilizer is hard to come by.
posted by bartonlong at 9:58 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Didn't the Soviets do this out in the Gulags?
posted by whuppy at 6:27 AM on October 9, 2014

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