The new building material made with gas captured from power plants

Could houses soon be built using carbon dioxide? In a bold step forward for sustainable construction, UCLA researchers believe that CO2 emissions from power plants can be harnessed and used to create a new, sustainable kind of concrete. Their pioneering process takes lime and combines it with carbon dioxide to make an eco-friendly construction material. Dubbed CO2NCRETE, the material has only been produced in a lab using 3D printers so far, with the next step to scale it up and put it to the test.

Scientists in California have provided a breath of fresh air to the engineering community, by developing CO2NCRETE - a new building material fabricated by 3D printers, using a process in which harmful carbon dioxide is captured from power plant smokestacks.

By essentially turning an unwanted byproduct into a sustainable building material, the innovative process could see a new dawn in climate-centric construction.

“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.” says 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.”

How will CO2NCRETE lay the foundation for change?

The new process will see two main benefits:

Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of concrete production.

Reutilising the carbon dioxide found in flue gas emitted from power plant smokestacks—the largest source of harmful greenhouse gas in the world.

“This approach looks at carbon dioxide as a resource—a resource you can reutilise.” 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 reutilise CO2 to make a building material which would be a new kind of cement, that’s an opportunity.”

A matter of scale

As with all potential game-changers, the viability of CO2NCRETE as a commercial construction material is still under scrutiny as so far the new construction material has only been produced in a lab. But as Professor Sant states, the signs are positive - because the team has already demonstrated the workability of the process by 3D printing the new material into small cones, it’s no longer a question of whether it can be done, it’s now simply a matter of scale:

'3D printing has been done for some time in the biomedical world,' Professor Sant said, 'but when you do it in a biomedical setting, you're interested in resolution. You're interested in precision. In construction, all of these things are important but not at the same scale. There is a scale challenge, because rather than print something that's 5cm-long (1.97 inches), we want to be able to print a beam that's 5m-long (16ft).’

If CO2NCRETE can be scaled up as anticipated, as well as having positive implications for the construction industry, the impact could be just as great for the power industry:

“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.