UCLA researchers have announced they can turn carbon dioxide into a sustainable concrete replacement.

Today the production of cement, which when mixed with water forms the binding agent of concrete, is also one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, about 5 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from concrete.

An even larger source of carbon dioxide emissions is flue gas emitted from smokestacks at power plants around the world. Carbon emissions from those plants are the largest source of global CO2 gas in the world. Yesterday, see below, another method of scavenging CO2 was posted. There is a lot to be had for recycling.

Carbon Upcycling: Turning Carbon Dioxide into CO2NCRETE (Click the link for a larger video.) from UCLA Luskin on Vimeo.

A team of interdisciplinary researchers at UCLA has been working on a unique solution that may help eliminate these sources of CO2 gas emissions. Their plan would be to create a closed-loop process: capturing carbon from power plant smokestacks and using it to create a new building material — called CO2NCRETE — that would be fabricated using 3D printers. They’re calling it “upcycling”.

J.R. DeShazo, professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation said, “What this technology does is take something that we have viewed as a nuisance – carbon dioxide that’s emitted from smokestacks – and turn it into something valuable.”

“I decided to get involved in this project because it could be a game-changer for climate policy. This technology tackles global climate change, which is one of the biggest challenges that society faces now and will face over the next century,” DeShazo said. DeShazo has provided the public policy and economic guidance for this research.

The scientific contributions have been led by Gaurav Sant, associate professor and a Henry Samueli Fellow in Civil and Environmental Engineering; Richard Kaner, distinguished professor in chemistry and biochemistry, and materials science and engineering; Laurent Pilon, professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering and bioengineering; and Matthieu Bauchy, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering.

This isn’t the first attempt to capture carbon emissions from power plants. It’s been done before, but the challenge has been what to do with the carbon dioxide once it’s captured. Readers may remember carbon sequestration, an idea that simply wouldn’t pan out, mostly trying to stuff the CO2 gas deep underground. Two problems drove the costs, CO2 gas separation and the “disposal”.

DeShazo explains further, “We hope to not only capture more gas, but we’re going to take that gas and, instead of storing it, which is the current approach, we’re going to try to use it to create a new kind of building material that will replace cement.”

Professor Sant takes up the explanation, “The approach we are trying to propose is you look at carbon dioxide as a resource – a resource you can reutilize. While cement production results in carbon dioxide emissions, just as the production of coal or the production of natural gas does, if we can reutilize CO2 to make a building material which would be a new kind of cement, that’s an opportunity.”

The researchers are excited about the possibility of reducing greenhouse gas in the U.S., especially in regions where coal-fired power plants are abundant. “But even more so is the promise to reduce the emissions in China and India,” DeShazo said. “China is currently the largest greenhouse gas producer in the world, and India will soon be number two, surpassing us.”

Thus far, the new construction material has been produced only at a lab scale, using 3-D printers to shape it into tiny cones. “We have proof of concept that we can do this,” DeShazo said. “But we need to begin the process of increasing the volume of material and then think about how to pilot it commercially. It’s one thing to prove these technologies in the laboratory. It’s another to take them out into the field and see how they work under real-world conditions.”

Sant explains on point with, “We can demonstrate a process where we take lime and combine it with carbon dioxide to produce a cement-like material. The big challenge we foresee with this is we’re not just trying to develop a building material. We’re trying to develop a process solution, an integrated technology which goes right from CO2 to a finished product.

“3-D printing has been done for some time in the biomedical world, but when you do it in a biomedical setting, you’re interested in resolution. You’re interested in precision. In construction, all of these things are important but not at the same scale. There is a scale challenge, because rather than print something that’s 5 centimeters long, we want to be able to print a beam that’s 5 meters long. The size scalability is a really important part,” Sant said.

Another challenge is convincing stakeholders that a cosmic shift like the researchers are proposing is beneficial – not just for the planet, but for them, too.

“This technology could change the economic incentives associated with these power plants in their operations and turn the smokestack flue gas into a resource countries can use, to build up their cities, extend their road systems,” DeShazo said. “It takes what was a problem and turns it into a benefit in products and services that are going to be very much needed and valued in places like India and China.”

DeShazo cited the interdisciplinary team of researchers as a reason for the success of the project. “What UCLA offers is a brilliant set of engineers, material scientists and economists who have been working on pieces of this problem for 10, 20, 30 years,” he said. “And we’re able to bring that team together to focus on each stage.”

It sure looks like a great concept. The team really needs to get on with testing the samples they’ve made to see if they really have something worthwhile.

Concrete is fundamentally used as a compressed structural material. With specialized casting and reinforcing such that the compressive strength is used some interesting forms like bridge girders can be made. So far no one has made viable concrete products for tension or sheer without considerable reinforcement. There is opportunity there.

Your humble writer is hoping this team gets on with a full suite of tests and find out what attributes they have with this new material. So far one can only hope that the material will offer engineers a major advance in structural design. That would be an earth history changing thing.


1 Comment so far

  1. B Fast on March 27, 2016 12:25 AM

    Interesting idea, but:

    What are the physical properties of co2ncrete? How strong is it, etc. This issue may still be pliable at this early stage of R&D, but it still must be asked.

    What kind of cost are we looking at? I know, early R&D, but is it realistic that this could be developed to be cost effective compared to other solutions to the carbon problem, such as sequestration.

    Well worth keeping an eye open for, but not worth betting the farm on, yet.

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