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Physics major builds a better brick

By Randall S. Barton on January 13, 2016 03:18 PM

CUE THE CUBOID. Physics major Aiman Absar ’19 is on a quest to help Bangladesh cope with devastating floods with a cheaper, more sustainable brick.

A Reed physics major hopes to curb the devastation caused by floods in Bangladesh with a new twist on one of humanity’s most durable inventions—the humble brick.

Aiman Absar ’19 and two Bangladeshi friends have created a startup to manufacture a new kind of brick that is both cheap and environmentally sustainable.

With a population of 156 million people packed into an area the size of Iowa, Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world. During the monsoon season, heavy rain combined with poor drainage cause the rivers to flood their banks, inundating the countryside and destroying the makeshift houses of the impoverished rural population. When the waters subside, the farmers and fishermen begin the Sisyphean task of fashioning another abode from sheets of corrugated steel, mud, and thatch.

Brick houses would withstand the deluge, but many Bangladeshis cannot afford them.

Growing up in a middle-class family in Dhaka, Aiman loved physics and math. But when he graduated from high school, he decided it was time to go beyond his comfort zone. He took two gap years and began attending classes at a business school, where he became friends with Sabira Mehrin Saba and Parashar Saha. The three challenged themselves to figure out how to make a brick that was strong, green, and cheap.

To lend the clay strength, they experimented with a variety of fibers, including jute and thatch. Their eureka moment came when they learned about a technique used in Brazil and Thailand based on sugarcane bagasse—the pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane.

Bangladesh is one of the largest sugarcane-producing countries in the world, and bagasse is everywhere. Sugar factories burn it to fuel their generators, producing huge volumes of non-biodegradable ash, which is then dumped into rivers or empty fields. Both bagasse and the ash are hydrophobic, or insoluble in water. Not only does the ash clog water channels, it kills the fish when it gets into their gills, and renders the soil water-resistant, leaving fields barren.

By using bagasse and ash, the partners realized that they could recycle a major waste product and also make the bricks impervious to rain.

To cut costs, they decided to dry their bricks in the sun, rather than baking them in a furnace. Although this approach limits production to months with sunshine, it means the bricks could be sold for 80% less than traditional bricks.

They named their company Bhitti, a Bengali word meaning “foundation.” For their pilot project, they constructed animal shelters using the Bhitti brick to see if it would withstand the monsoon, which didn’t materialize that year. But having used up all their own money, they needed more cash to test and produce bricks. In February 2014, they presented their brick at the Global Social Entrepreneurship competition, organized by the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. The trip to Seattle was the first time Aiman had ever been out of Bangladesh. “It was an amazing experience,” he says. “I got to meet a lot of people and hear what they are doing. I realized I should come back to the United States and study physics.”

He chatted about physics with competitors from around the world, and kept hearing that Reed offered the best undergraduate physics program in the country.

Bhitti won the second prize of $10,000, enough seed money to hire engineers and build a warehouse. And Aiman decided to apply to Reed, which offered him generous financial aid. “I was always fascinated by physics because it is the study of everything,” he says.

He is thriving at Reed, with its culture of learning for learning’s sake, and would one day like to be an inventor, like his hero Nikola Tesla.

“I come from Asia where schools are very job-centered,” he says. “But as a physicist I’m interested in finding solutions to problems that plague the world.”

While his partners in Bangladesh continue to refine the process of building better bricks, he pursues his studies at Reed and reviews lab reports from Bhitti’s engineers.

The next step? Await the monsoons and see how well the bricks hold up.