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“Upcycling” Methods are Converting Pollutants into Building Materials


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Cement is the most commonly used building material and the intense heat required for its creation has emerged as a major pollutant.  

Cement-making represents approximately 5% of all emissions from industry and fossil fuels annually, more than all emissions generated by even airplanes and ships, according to the PBS Newshour.

As green construction gains a legitimate foothold, and more companies are becoming eco-conscious in their building methods, scientists and biotech firms are discovering new ways of side-stepping the need for emitting C02, or even recapturing that carbon dioxide and turning it into something beneficial.

One method cement creation can clean up its act is by relying more on renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, rather than burning fossil fuels to bake cement. Another involves using biomaterials such as calcium carbonate, the same material that makes up coral, seashells, teeth and bones. Architect and North Carolina State University Professor of Architecture, Kreig Dosier, developed a method of turning bacteria into calcium carbonate. The process takes only days for the manufactured bricks or cement to become useable, and cures at room temperature.

The process takes only days for the manufactured bricks or cement to become useable, and cures at room temperature. 

After scores of failed attempts, Dosier and her husband, Michael, successfully developed bioMASON cement, which uses special microbes and readily available raw materials like sand, with no heat, to produce usable bricks and concrete. The bioMASON bricks are already being mass produced with specially designed machinery, which have already been tested in San Francisco courtyards and several small walls. The embedded microbes in the material capture C02 right from the air as they form the necessary calcium carbonate, so not only are the bricks made with zero emissions, they actually have a net negative rate of emission.

A team of UCLA researchers are also working to solve the problem of carbon emissions from concrete, using smoke produced by power plant smokestacks to create an entirely new material, dubbed CO2NCRETE. The process involves combining lime with the captured carbon dioxide to produce a material comparable to cement, according to UCLA’s newsroom. The finished product is made using a specialized 3D printer. J.R. DeShazo, public policy professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and Director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation said in a news release that CO2NCRETE could be a game-changer in tackling the problem of climate change.

The finished product is made using a specialized 3D printer. 

“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.”

CO2NCRETE has so far only been produced in laboratory environments as a proof of concept, but the research team believes it could one day replace cement entirely once mass-scale production becomes feasible.

With enormous population centers like China and India emerging as hotbeds of construction activity, the need to account for carbon emissions in construction is becoming more pressing each year. Great minds are hard at work devising new methods of utilizing pollutants as building materials, and construction one day soon could very well lead the charge in prioritizing sustainable practices industry-wide.

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