UCLA researchers hope to turn captured CO2 into sustainable concrete

A team of researchers at UCLA have begun working on a unique solution to help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by turning it into a concrete-like material.

The team’s proposed project involves collecting CO2 from smokestacks and processing the chemical into a usable material able to be used in large scale 3D printing.

The researchers plan is to create a closed-loop process; capturing carbon from power plant smokestacks and use it to create a new building material called CO2 NCRETE. The material will be fabricated using 3D printers and a process called ‘upcycling’, which involves taking waste and turning it into a different but useful product.

This new carbon capture method would be also help the cement industry, which globally produces around 5% of the total carbon emissions every year, become more environmentally friendly. Cement, when mixed with water, forms the binding agent in concrete.

Upcycling CO2 to become CO2 NCRETE

J.R. DeShazo, left, and Gaurav Sant show off a sample of the new building material made from CO2 that they hope will one day replace concrete - image courtesy of UCLA.
J R DeShazo, left, and Gaurav Sant show off a sample of the new building material made from CO2 that they hope will one day replace concrete – image courtesy of UCLA.

The possibility of this new upcycling technology, turning something toxic into something valuable excites J R DeShazo, professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Others have attempted to capture carbon emissions from power plants and succeeded, but the challenge is what to do with the carbon dioxide once it’s captured.

DeShazo has provided the public policy and economic guidance for this research. The scientific contributions have been led by Gaurav Sant, associate professor and Henry Samueli Fellow in Civil and Environmental Engineering; Richard Kaner, distinguished professor in chemistry and biochemistry, and materials science and engineering; Laurent Pilon, professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering and bioengineering; and Matthieu Bauchy, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering.

DeShazo has own vision of what to with the captured gas; put it to good use by creating a new kind of building material.

“We hope to not only capture more gas, 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,” he said.

By creating an alternative and more environmentally friendly alternative to cement, the UCLA research team’s goal is to create a whole new material manufacturing process that can be used in the construction industry.

“Thus far, the new construction material has been produced only at a lab scale, using 3-D printers to shape it into tiny cones. “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.”

Part of this challenge means expanding from printing 5cm long samples to 5m long usable blocks.