Could Nanoengineering Create Lower Emissions from Cement Production?

In Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, British environmental activist and writer George Monbiot identifies cement production as major source of greenhouse gas emissions. While most people are focused on reducing emissions from cars and buildings, a group of MIT engineers is attempting to tackle the cement issue by studying the material's nanoparticle structure. Lead project engineer Franz-Josef Ulm, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and his team believe that they can re-engineer cement so that production requires much less heat, and, by extension, emits less CO2:

"If everything depends on the organizational structure of the nanoparticles that make up concrete, rather than on the material itself, we can conceivably replace it with a material that has concrete's other characteristics-strength, durability, mass availability and low cost-but does not release so much CO2 into the atmosphere during manufacture," said [Ulm]. ...

The work also shows that the study of very common materials at the nano scale has great potential for improving materials in ways we might not have conceived. Ulm refers to this work as the "identification of the geogenomic code of materials, the blueprint of a material's nanomechanical behavior."

Cement is manufactured at the rate of 2.35 billion tons per year, enough to produce 1 cubic meter of concrete for every person in the world. If engineers can reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the world's cement manufacturing by even 10 percent, that would accomplish one-fifth of the Kyoto Protocol goal of a 5.2 percent reduction in total carbon dioxide emissions.

Studying the nanoparticles of a wide variety of cement pastes, Ulm and colleagues discovered that materials' hardness resulted not from a particular combination of minerals, but rather "...the organization of that mineral as packed nanoparticles." Theoretically, the team could find or engineer a material that has the same packed nanoparticle structure, but doesn't require the high heat levels for production. The potential payoff: a 10% worldwide reduction in CO2 emissions.Ulm estimates that the project will take about five years. ::Science Daily via jiltedcitizen at Hugg
Photo Credit: Donna Coveney

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