Future forms of concrete, plastic could be both sustainable and eco-friendly

“The polymers can be chemically recycled and reused, in principle, infinitely.”

Over the centuries there have been a number of key moments that have defined the way we build our world. Innovation across industries has been - and remains to be - a vital component of that progression. We’ve read about the stone, bronze and iron ages - periods of time defined so strongly by the innovations of the era that they were named after them.

Among the materials quickly discovered thereafter, and eventually relied upon as a massive improvement from anything the world had seen before, was concrete. It’s hard to imagine the current domestic and urban scenarios without its arrival.

But while the material has played a huge role in the spaces we see today, in 2018 we’re more aware than any other point in history of its detrimental impact on the environment.

The major component of concrete, cement production accounts for 5 per cent of the world’s man-made carbon emissions. For every ton of concrete made, 900 kilograms of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere, largely due to the rigorous chemical processes involved.

Image Credit: Steinar Engeland

Now research is underway at the University of Exeter to incorporate graphene in the production of concrete. The revolutionary material’s powerful qualities were recently discovered and its applications have varied, from paint to a possible solution to water crises.

Fundamental to graphene’s use in the production of concrete is the fact that it could reduce the materials used down to 50 per cent. Thereby reducing the carbon emission from the current 900 kilograms per ton to 446 kilograms per ton.

While the study reimagines concrete to meet the needs of an ailing climate, the results produce a stronger, more durable version of the material. It’s interesting when one considers that perhaps this improved solution may not even have been discovered were it not for the initial problem.

This cycle demonstrates the need for the constant interrogation of existing processes and materials, particularly if we’re to move forward in a sustainable way.

“This unprecedented range of functionalities and properties uncovered are an important step in encouraging a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly construction industry worldwide,” says the study’s lead author, Dimitar Dimov.

Plastic is another material that appeared as a boon in the manufacturing industry and our homes. Here was a material that was cheap, durable, moisture-resistant and easy to produce. But in the last few years, the threat to the environment has outweighed the advantages of the material - there’s just too much of it and it’s impossible to break the material down. The result is a greater demand for landfills, and endangered oceans and wildlife.

Image Credit: Hengstream

Traditionally, plastic has little place in the circular economy, and even so-called ‘biodegradable’ variations of the material have been unable to decompose after three years.

A group of researchers at Colorado State University’s Department of Chemistry are exploring the possibilities of a plastic-like material by reconfiguring its chemical makeup.

While maintaining the key characteristics of plastic, the distinguishing factor in this innovation is the discovery of a polymer which they, in theory, would be able to be convert back to a small-molecule state. This is groundbreaking in that it makes it possible to chemically recycle the material.

The project is only at research level and hasn’t been rolled out into the marketplace yet. But should it get there, it would mean the plastics filling our oceans and landfills can be placed in a reactor and broken down to extend its lifetime and the uses of the material.

The results may be unprecedented and presents for the first time a viable way for plastic to legitimately exist in a circular economy.

Professor of chemistry and the lead on the project, Eugene Chen says, “The polymers can be chemically recycled and reused, in principle, infinitely.”

So while we haven't found a way to get rid of the pollutants already trashing the Earth, these iterations of the traditional way of doing things are a step in the right direction. Frankly, a direction we must take, now.

Thumbnail credit: Bill Cotton/Colorado State University

More on waste and the designers who redesign their production: 

This Ghanaian company is turning plastic waste into asphalt roads

Revolutionising food production with edible fungi made from plastic

Ukubutha: A waste-to-energy solution to mobilise residents in informal settlements