The Best New Idea on the Block
We can all take inspiration from this tale of a humble inventor who harnessed the Sargassum seaweed crisis to create a cheap, low-tech housing material.
I love success stories, particularly when the individuals rise from humble roots. One of my favorites is that of the musician named Sixto Rodriguez, emotionally captured in the documentary, “Searching for Sugarman.” He was presumed dead, only to be discovered and “resurrected” to receive the acclaim (in South Africa) that he never got in this country back in the 1970s.
The story of Omar Vázquez Sánchez of Mexico has a similar arc, in that the man involved is born into a humble lifestyle and spends much of his life doing the kind of persistent hard labor that most of us would find deeply exhausting.
One of Sánchez’ small business efforts involved the thankless removal of tons of nasty smelling Sargassum seaweed from resorts and tourist beaches frequented by well-to-do tourists. This tangle of seaweed and current-borne detritus has washed ashore with increasing volume over recent years from Mexico to Florida beaches, and the sheer volume of organic yuck has overwhelmed local communities.
But Sanchez saw potential in the Sargassum: a virtually limitless source of “free” fiber, which, when mixed with the natural clay soil of his region, could form strong and durable “bricks.”
He began by gathering the seaweed, grinding it up and testing it with soil and other low-cost aggregates to find the right ratios for the blocks, the same way a multi-national R&D facility would, but without the HR department and big paychecks. And he and his local helpers did it all by hand. He built the first block home for his mother, modeled after the modest dwelling where he spent his childhood.
Now his operation, which he calls Sargablock, has legs. The blocks have already been used to construct 13 homes for low-income families in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Sanchez is getting inquiries from people in other countries, including the U.S.
What’s important about this story is the concept of finding opportunity in obstacles. Think of all the other crises that seem existential.
For example, could extreme outdoor heat be used to fire up energy devices to cool buildings? What about using thermoelectric generators or Sterling Engines? Can methane be burned in a cleaner way that destroys it and produces energy but minimizes pollution? What about plastics?
Is there a way to extract the microscopic particles in our environment and reconstitute them into 3D-printed houses or furniture? Can we make plastics “permanent” so they don’t break down and pollute our world? Or do we need to release plastic-eating bacteria on the whole mess and find a better building block?
These are challenges that need to be solved by engineers and building scientists. If they approach problems with the same open mind as Omar Vázquez Sánchez, they might find a silver lining, and also buy time for the transition away from fossil fuels.