When it comes to carbon footprint, it’s universally acknowledged that the biggest feet on the planet belong to the fossil fuel trio of oil, coal and gas. These non-renewable energy sources not only supply around 80% of the world’s energy, but also contribute over 80% of the industrial world’s total carbon emissions.
It’s only natural therefore, that these top polluters generate a lot of negative buzz within the public narrative on climate change. There is, however, another significantly unsustainable commodity which should be highlighted: cement.
A core ingredient of concrete and a foundation of the industrial world, cement production is responsible for approximately 8% of total annual global emissions.
As a substantial polluter, cement is therefore a major player in the Paris Agreement’s manifesto to cut emissions and avoid the worst effects of climate change by 2050.
Earlier this month, two material science PhD students from Imperial College London were awarded the internationally recognised prize for architectural achievement – the OBEL award – for their breakthrough generation of scalable, carbon-negative cement.
Their technology, which they call the Seratech process, has the potential to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s most-used construction material, concrete, effectively eliminating its giant CO2 footprint.
“This is good news for construction and even better news for our planet,” say the scientists behind the technology.
The OBEL award is presented annually “for architecture that honors recent and outstanding architectural contributions to human development all over the world.”
The jury selected Seratech as this year’s winners, because their outstanding technology best represented the focus of this year’s award: “embodied emissions.”
How bad is cement for the environment?
Cement, and therefore its downstream composite; concrete, are principal contributors to climate change. To put it in perspective, if cement were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of annual carbon emissions, surpassed only by the US and China.
It’s therefore fair to say that where concrete is concerned, the industry has a long way to go before its emissions are brought in line with the climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement. In fact, cement’s annual carbon footprint would need to be reduced by almost 1/5th in the next eight years to achieve this.
There is however a paradox at play, because just as the world is waking up to the drastic need to cut the emissions of the construction sector by 2030, the global demand for cement is predicted to increase five-fold in the same timescale.
Rapid urbanization of the world’s emerging economies, continued development of global infrastructure, as well as the expansion of the global renewable energy sector – all rely on concrete. As a result, by 2030, it’s projected that the planet will require around five billion tonnes of cement per year to fulfil estimations.
The global concrete jungle just keeps on getting bigger – and without intervention, so does its impact.
Not only are we witnessing an immediate and direct loss of green space around the globe as we make room for bigger cities, greater infrastructure, and urbanization of once-rural areas, but the emissions of the expanding industrial sector are also indirectly contributing to the destruction of the environment, gradually, through their contribution to climate change.
It’s clear that a change is required in the way the world designs, builds and maintains architecture and infrastructure if we are to scale-up as planned, but not sacrifice our planet.
Therefore, the significance of Seratech’s technology cannot be underlined enough, as their carbon-neutral concrete provides the construction industry with an innovative yet simple solution to keep pushing forwards – but with no carbon footprint.
SERATECH WINS THE 2022 OBEL AWARD
Our technology which advocates decarbonisation of cement and concrete has scooped the 2022 OBEL AWARD, a new, international prize for architectural achievement.
— Seratech Cement (@SeratechCement) October 6, 2022
Sam Draper and Barney Shanks are two material scientists from London, who after developing a new technology to produce a carbon-negative cement alternative, founded Seratech as a spinoff from their lab at Imperial College London.
The pair aim to commercialize their research and scale-up production of their carbon-neutral concrete they say “has significant value in construction.”
Seratech’s science has shown that up to 40% of the emission-heavy cement component of concrete can be replaced with a carbon-negative silica, created in their lab. Replacing this proportion of cement with their climate-friendly silica product directly translates into a 40% reduction in concrete’s overall emissions.
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What’s more, Seratech’s silica is produced as part of a carbon capture process, meaning that its formation directly consumes waste CO2 from industrial processes, actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and subsequently further reducing emissions.
What this essentially means is that the combination of their silica product’s carbon-capturing nature, alongside its replacement of 40% of traditional cement in composite concrete mix, results in an doubly eco-friendly end product that has overall net-zero carbon emissions.
To put it simply – the amount of carbon dioxide produced in the making of Seratech’s alternative concrete is exactly equivalent to the amount directly captured in the silica component of the mix.
Seratech is a bespoke #cement mix that incorporates olivine and waste CO2 gases to produce silica SCM which is used as a Portland cement replacement in #concrete.
This process makes concrete production #carbonneutral and supports the future of #sustainable construction pic.twitter.com/pRqSeXfkrJ
— Seratech Cement (@SeratechCement) September 7, 2022
Wouldn’t it be better to cut 100% of the polluting cement from concrete?
Well, yes – the answer is of course that it would be preferable to replace all of the cement in the mix with a more climate-friendly alternative, but this would take decades to perfect.
The effectiveness of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is a hotly debated topic, with many climate scientists dubious as to how real of an impact the technology can have on the reduction of carbon emissions.
There are indeed other scientists racing to generate a concrete product that contains 0% cement, eliminating the need for reliance on CCS by entirely replacing the polluting component with a greener alternative. The problem is that due to limitations in the availability of the raw materials required to produce such products, these breakthroughs are still a while off.
On the other hand, Seratech’s technology has the potential to provide immediate results – it’s practical, low-cost, and scalable – because the raw materials required to generate Seratech’s silica are globally readily available, and their technology is designed in such a way that it can be rapidly and seamlessly integrated into existing concrete production processes.
The awarding OBEL jury say their rationale for awarding Seratech rather than other groups with the prize, is due to their belief that “it is necessary to encourage ambitious, cross-disciplinary ideas that do not just provide a temporary or a small-scale fix nor an unrealistic major shift in current practices.”
The bottom line is that an imperfect yet innovative first step towards decarbonisation is worth taking, otherwise we are left standing on the starting line, waiting for a finished product whilst continuing to pump unnecessary amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
“Humanity can’t afford to spend 20-50 years scaling the technology to give us sustainable materials. It needs to be now,” says one of Seratech’s founders Sam Draper.
Seratech is not alone in their mission, as many other academic and industrial groups are working to expedite the wide scale implementation of creative solutions to decarbonise concrete.
Some other cement-alternatives in the mix include:
- Minus Materials’ lab-grown “biogenic limestone” produced by algae.
- ACORN’s alternatively structured flooring, which incorporates geometric empty space vaults, and requires 75% concrete.
- Carbicrete’s carbon-capture cement made from waste-products of the steel industry.
- “Sea Stone,” made from waste seashells from the food industry.
- “FoamWork,” made from 3d-printed recyclable mineral foam.
The OBEL Jury say they hope the winner’s carbon-zero concrete will spark innovation and change within the industry, encouraging “cross-disciplinary solutions” to face current and future climate challenges.
“The accelerating climate crisis has spurred self-examination within the construction industry and a new focus on the design of buildings as well as the use of materials and resources,” says the jury, “once scaled-up and implemented, Seratech has the potential to significantly reduce overall carbon emissions from the construction industry.”
Seratech’s founders say they “can’t wait to see some of the brilliant architects take this material and do some weird and wonderful things with it.”
Neither can we!
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Quarry Bay apartments, Hong Kong. Featured Photo Credit: etherlore/Flickr