Concrete is known as one of the most versatile building materials on the planet; it is used to create everything from skyscrapers to roads. It was even used extensively in the early part of the last century to build large ocean-going commercial ships. It is strong, durable and extremely versatile, and as such it is used almost everywhere. It has been a big part of economic growth and prosperity for developing nations the world over.
It is also really bad for the planet. In its most basic form, concrete consists of cement and other materials, usually aggregate stone. According to Wikipedia, the cement industry is one of the primary producers of carbon dioxide and causes damage to the most fertile layer of the earth, the topsoil. Concrete is also used to create hard surfaces which contribute to surface runoff that may cause soil erosion, water pollution and flooding. In places like China where concrete production is at an all-time high, gravel and sand are being extracted to the point of scarcity. In other areas, the extraction of sand and gravel cause damage to riparian habitat for fish and other aquatics. It is a dirty business, but thankfully the issue of aggregate scarcity may be alleviated by hempcrete, or other forms of concrete that use plastic fibers instead of stones.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the production of cement is carbon intense. In the article Biological Concrete That Grows Moss and Provides Insulation while Absorbing CO2, the writer discusses a new form of concrete where concrete is used to provide a medium for growing specific types of plants. These plants absorb CO2 and also provide an additional level of insulation to the building. It can cover the entire building with vegetation that keeps on changing color in different seasons throughout the year. So, while increasing efficiency and capturing CO2, the product adds a unique aesthetic value to the community.
In the article The Beginning of A New Industry to Suck CO2 From The Atmosphere, a Canadian company from Squamish, BC (near to my home) has now set up shop in Texas. I have been following their company since they first started. With proof of concept, they’ve now secured funding to go to the next level. They are using technology to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and are transforming it into a fossil fuel replacement product. Another company, CarbonCure Technologies, is injecting the captured CO2 into concrete to permanently store it and thus give concrete a lower net carbon impact.
Technology also provides power in new ways: In the article Near-Infinite-Lasting Power Sources Could Derive from Nuclear Waste, a team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol in England have found a way to make what they call diamond batteries. The program, which is in an advanced stage (meaning it is near to being deployed on a wide scale), solves several problems. Many of the UK’s nuclear power infrastructure is reaching end of life and will be very costly to decommission safety. By removing carbon-14 isotopes from the waste material, the time and cost of the decommissioning program may be vastly reduced. The battery that is produced provides a virtually endless supply of electrical energy in the harshest of environments, and may be able to provide energy to locations that otherwise may be difficult to reach, such as spacecraft, weather monitoring stations, lunar bases or even a pacemaker inside a human body.
It is very positive to see that companies and scientists are racing to help fix some of the problems previous generations of our society created. As humans, we thrive by solving challenges, and when we do, we celebrate the company or individuals who can do this, sometimes raising them to celebrity status. Thankfully, their notoriety can often be focussed to further raise awareness and instigate even more change.
Right now, we are facing some of the biggest problems ever to have challenged our species. I believe our human drive to fix what is broken (and our entrepreneurial spirit) will help pave the way forward to a cleaner future.
In the meantime, maybe we should all eat a little less meat, plant a few more trees and refuse to accept single use plastic. Every bit helps.
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