After water, concrete is the most-consumed substance on Earth. But it’s a pricey addiction: Each ton of cement generates nearly a ton of carbon emissions. The concrete industry produces around 5 percent of carbon emissions globally — almost the same portion as India’s total fossil fuel combustion emissions. And with the concrete industry slated to keep growing at a clip of nearly 4 percent each year, the environmental impact of concrete will only grow larger.

One group of researchers at MIT, led by civil and environmental engineering professor Oral Buyukozturk, think they have a solution to the energy-intensiveness of the concrete industry. They’re examining the structural makeup of naturally hard material, like bone, shells, and deep-sea sponges, to create a paradigm shift in how cement paste is designed, as detailed in their new paper published in the journal Construction and Building Materials.

The paper outlines a “bioinspired” methodology that scientists could follow to design cement. A new version of cement designed to integrate new natural materials could last longer and be more sustainable. “If we can replace cement, partially or totally, with some other materials that may be readily and amply available in nature, we can meet our objectives for sustainability,” Buyukozturk said in a press release. One type of potential natural material is volcanic ash, which Buyukozturk is currently testing as an additive or substitute to cement.

"A comparison of natural materials and cement paste demonstrates the steps by which smaller pieces assemble to form larger structures."

The concrete industry is so big – billions of tons each year big – that small changes in the makeup of the construction material can have resounding effects for greenhouse gas emissions. The MIT researchers aren’t the only ones hunting for a more sustainable cement: A Spanish-led consortium backed by the EU recently unveiled a material made out of coal fly ash (coal combustion waste which is mostly thrown in landfills) that is cheaper and more sustainable than concrete.

Designing concrete with biology in mind could lead to more durable roads, bridges, structures, reduce the carbon and energy footprint, and even enable us to sequester carbon dioxide as the material is made, co-author and MIT engineering professor Markus Buehler said in the release.

As for what to do with the CO2 that’s leftover from producing bio inspired concrete? Ford will make it into cupholders for cars, obviously.


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