Mar 15, 2016 | By Benedict

UCLA researchers have devised a method for creating a sustainable 3D printed building material called ‘CO2NCRETE’. The researchers believe that CO2 emissions from power plants could be harnessed and used to create a new, sustainable kind of concrete.

Concrete is all around us. From the roads we drive on, to the Panama Canal, to the Roman Pantheon, concrete forms a huge part of the modern world. But did you know that the production of cement is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions? Around 5 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from concrete. Acknowledging this figure as a real problem for the concrete industry, a team of researchers at UCLA has set out to cement its place in scientific history by creating a unique solution to concrete-originating greenhouse gases.

The plan is simple but has the potential to be incredibly effective: to create a closed-loop process, in which carbon is captured from harmful power plant smokestacks and used to create CO2NCRETE, a new building material that would be fabricated by 3D printers. The plan would help to tackle environmental issues on two fronts: by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of concrete production, and by resourcing the carbon dioxide found in flue gas emitted from power plant smokestacks—the largest source of harmful greenhouse gas in the world.

“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,” said J.R. DeShazo, professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. “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.”

Scientists have previously attempted to tackle the problem of greenhouse gases by harnessing power plant emissions, but with a different goal: to store the gases. The UCLA researchers, on the other hand, want to turn the gas into something else entirely. “We hope to not only capture more gas,” DeShazo said, “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.”

“The approach we are trying to propose is you look at carbon dioxide as a resource—a resource you can reutilize,” added Gaurav Sant, associate professor at UCLA and scientific lead for the research. “While cement production results in carbon dioxide, 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.”

To reduce the effects of global warming, it is imperative that greenhouse gas emissions are reduced all over the world. However, despite the ubiquity of coal-fired power plants in the US, the researchers have set their sights further afield: on China and India, two of the world’s biggest polluters. “China is currently the largest greenhouse gas producer in the world, and India will soon be number two, surpassing us,” said DeShazo.

Though the project is still in its early days, the team has already demonstrated the workability of the plan by 3D printing the new material into tiny cones. Eventually, this 3D printing process could be carried out on a much larger scale, using CO2 emissions from power plants. “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.”

The scale on which the researchers hope to be working could potentially bring 3D printing off the desktop and into the building yard. Whilst most 3D printers are used to produce modestly sized 3D printed objects, the CO2NCRETE project would require 3D printed objects up to five meters long. Fortunately, 3D printing companies such as Bruil have already demonstrated the plausibility of 3D printing large concrete objects. Amalgamma, another concrete pioneer, recently devised a special concrete 3D printing method which uses a binding agent injected into the print bed.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the UCLA researchers lies in convincing stakeholders that their project could be economically beneficial to businesses, as well as environmentally beneficial to the planet. That, however, is a challenge that the researchers are more than ready for: “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 explained. “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.”

With nothing yet set in concrete, we can only hope that the researchers secure adequate backing for their ambitious and thoroughly worthwhile 3D printing project.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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