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Could concrete save the planet? It’s not as crazy as it sounds…

Policy@Manchester

7 min read Partner content

The COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow has been hailed as ‘the last best chance’ to commit nations to the actions needed to mitigate the effects of climate change. In this blog, James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester – explains how a new concrete product, developed at The University of Manchester, could be the solution to a huge, global problem that is both greener and cheaper from the outset.

  • In the run-up to the COP26 conference, the UK Government published its plan for action, which sets out a wide range of measures for decarbonisation of the economy.
  • After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. It accounts for around 8-10% of global CO2 emissions, a staggering 5.2bn tonnes per annum, predominantly from cement.
  • Trials of a new graphene-enhanced product called Concretene, created at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) have shown a potential reduction in 25-30% of CO2 and 15-20% in cost.
  • Thanks to pioneering innovation like Concretene, the UK has an opportunity to be a global leader in advanced materials for sustainable construction.
  • The UK Government must capitalise on its record R&D investment and directly help finalise a national ‘late stage’ testing and accreditation programme to ensure the rapid worldwide exploitation and commercialisation of Concretene.

In the run-up to COP26, the UK Government has published its plan for action: ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’, which sets out a wide range of measures for decarbonisation of the economy.

In this blog, I want to focus on one of the ‘key principles’ cited as drivers for Government action and show how we, at The University of Manchester in partnership with industry, are already taking significant steps towards genuine, needle-moving change through innovation.

The Government Net Zero Strategy states: “We will work with businesses to continue delivering deep cost reductions in low carbon tech through support for the latest state of the art kit to bring down costs for consumers and deliver benefits for businesses.”

It’s long been received wisdom that ‘greener’ solutions come with a price tag, even if forecasted savings will eventually more-than-compensate for the initial investment. But what if you could come up with a solution to a huge, global problem that was both greener and cheaper from the outset? Enter concrete.

What’s the problem with concrete?

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. It accounts for around 8-10% of global CO2 emissions, a staggering 5.2bn tonnes per annum, predominantly from cement. It is estimated that cement and concrete production will increase by more than 25% by 2030, while the Paris climate agreement states that emissions must shrink by 16% over the same period to meet targets preventing more than 1.5C of global warming. Something has to give.

At Manchester, we have been working with UK construction firm Nationwide Engineering Group (NEG) to develop a new product, Concretene, which allows for removal of up to 30% of material from concrete slabs for the same structural performance and removal of all steel grid reinforcement. The resulting concrete mix can be used like any other concrete, requiring no special equipment or training at batching plants or on site, so no expenditure is required to adopt the technology.

How does it work?

The processes by which the raw ingredients of sand, cement, aggregate and water become concrete are complex, but put simply, a graphene-based additive encourages stronger bonds at a microstructural level, adding strength and tensile capacity, while reducing cracking and permeability.

Live trials – with more than 800 tonnes of Concretene poured and set to date, have shown a reduction in 25-30% of CO2 and 15-20% in cost. Being greener and cheaper, Concretene therefore stands a chance of flourishing in an industry of narrow margins and one that is wrestling with material availability right across the supply chain.

Cement and concrete are critical for the construction industry. Major UK Government projects such as HS2, Hinckley Point, Heathrow Airport, Stonehenge Tunnel and the unprecedented demand for new housing are all reliant on concrete. The Government cannot deliver these projects and meet carbon targets with existing materials and the entire global construction industry is facing the same challenges, with ever-increasing demand for raw materials and pressure to reduce carbon footprint.

Scaling up the technology

In May 2021, we poured a 230-tonne structural floor slab at a site in Wiltshire. This was the first structural pour in the world of graphene-enhanced concrete engineered for sustainability and demonstrated significant performance enhancements, leading to:

  • 30% reduction in CO2 emissions
  • 30% reduction in the amount of concrete required in ground slabs
  • 100% elimination of steel reinforcement in ground slabs
  • 20% reduction in overall cost
  • Reductions in staff required and time on site

It sounds like a home-run for home-grown technology. However, the construction industry is tightly regulated and there are still hurdles to cross in terms of testing and accreditation to allow a product like Concretene to be included in construction standards.

Historically, it can take years for novel materials to succeed in this type of accreditation, but the urgency of net-zero targets requires a fast-tracked approach. More is now required to accelerate the progress of testing and secure the UK’s position as global leaders in this technology.

Global competition

Such is the significance of this opportunity that several countries, predominantly China and the US, are racing to catch up with this world-leading UK technology. They have made significant investments already in their home markets and without comparable support for UK innovation, it is simply a matter of time before they overtake us and we lose our current advantage.

It’s a familiar criticism in the world of innovation that Britain invents and the US exploits. But with smart investment around green technologies such as Concretene, we can break that cycle.

Concretene has been designed to be manufactured and deployed internationally giving significant export opportunities for the UK, and has the potential to have a marked positive impact on global CO2 emissions.

Record R&D investment

As well as its Net Zero Strategy, the UK Government made another major announcement ahead of COP26. As part of the 2021 Autumn Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that the UK’s science and innovation community will continue to underpin solutions to many of the world’s greatest challenges, from economic recovery to climate change.

The Chancellor made a commitment to increase public R&D investment to record levels, providing £20 billion across the UK by 2024-25. The Chancellor also said it was important that we in the UK “strengthen our focus on late-stage innovation”.

With this scale of R&D investment and the UK on the brink of delivering game-changing technologies, I believe we are at a unique moment in history. Thanks to pioneering innovation like Concretene, the UK has an opportunity to be a global leader in advanced materials for sustainable construction – and can look to confidently develop one of the most innovative built environment economies in the world, potentially to rival superpowers like USA and China.

But to secure UK leadership in the potentially huge global market for graphene-enhanced concrete, I would recommend that the Government capitalises on its record R&D investment and directly helps finalise a national ‘late stage’ testing and accreditation programme to ensure the rapid worldwide exploitation and commercialisation of Concretene.

This would be a win for UK innovation, a win for the construction industry and a win en route to the decarbonisation targets set out in the Net Zero Strategy. But only if together we act to ‘build back greener’ right now.

 


Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.

 

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