1 topic, 2 key figures, 3 startups to draw inspiration from
Low-carbon materials: a necessary transition in the construction industry
“The state of the building stock in Europe will make or break the European Green Deal”, said Adrian Joyce, Secretary General of the European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings. Indeed, buildings account for 19% of global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions.
Construction materials account for 40% of the CO2 from buildings. This is due to 2 main factors: the overexploitation of raw material resources and/or the exploitation of polluting resources and the extensive use of energy-intensive components during their production phase. Cement is one of the main construction materials along with steel and accounts for 8% of the global CO2 emissions, which leads to the exploration for sustainable building materials. Low-carbon materials such as carbon concrete or wood fiber are a promising alternative. They are made using a waste-free production process and an energy and carbon-efficient production, assembly and transportation process.
Different technologies are being tested and developed:
- Short- and medium-term solutions: recycling and carbon compensation. An example of recycled industrial waste is high-density blocks which are made up of a mixture of lime fly ash and stone crusher dust. However, the cost and effort to recycle these materials remains high. Carbon capture solutions are also another way to decarbonize materials. Although this technology is premature today and not yet economically proven, it can capture carbon dioxide waste and prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere.
- Long-term solutions: substitution by new low-carbon materials. Low-carbon concrete appears to be a good way forward, as concrete will remain the most widely used building material in the coming years. Decarbonization of concrete means decarbonization of cement. Cement containing a high volume of one or more complementary cementing materials (CCM) (such as coal fly ash, granulated slag, silica fume and reactive rice-husk ash) is a promising alternative to clinker for reducing CO2 emissions. Extensive R&D is underway to use CCM in cement in Portland, and studies highlight that it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the global cement production by up to 80%. Many startups (e.g. CarbonCure, Carbon Clean Solutions, LanzaTech) are positioning themselves on this segment.
- Another alternative is bio-based materials. They are made up from substances derived from living organisms and can be used in many applications in the construction sector such as for insulation (vegetable fiber wools, straw bales, etc.). Some technologies create a material directly by mixing and compacting different bio-material parts (wood fiber, beams, posts, etc.), while others add customer polymer to the wood and plant fiber to make the material more resistant. However, there is still some reluctance towards bio-based materials, as they have not been shown to be comparable to their traditional counterparts (performance, ease of use, cost, etc.).
Although low-carbon alternatives are growing, there are significant barriers to their adoption, which explains why concrete and other high polluting materials are still widely used:
- The reluctance of major players to change: the key manufacturers who dominate the materials industry are slow to experiment or change business models. Architects, engineers, contractors, and clients are also cautious about the use of new building materials.
- Technical considerations related to the low-carbon transition: technologies such as carbon capture, use and storage, or the production of hydrogen-based metallurgical processes, have been demonstrated but are not yet commercially available.
- Cost of investing in new, low-carbon technologies and processes: the investment required for heavy industries, such as steel and cement, could be up to 60% higher than current levels.
Low-carbon materials still have a long way to go before they become a mature market, but there is reason for optimism. The transition to a low-carbon materials industry will be supported next year by the launch of a platform on the London Metal Exchange for the trading of low-carbon aluminium, mostly produced with renewable energy. This is the first time a metal will be traded based on its environmental footprint in the exchange’s 143-year history.
2 Key Figures
112 low-carbon materials startups
in the world
Market size expected to reach $377bn by 2022
According to Allied Market Research, the global low-carbon building materials market size was valued at $171bn in 2015 and is expected to reach $377bn by 2022.
3 startups to draw inspiration from
This week, we identified three startups that we can draw inspiration from: Carbon Clean, Woodoo and Kenoteq.
Based in London, Carbon Clean Solutions (CCS) provide carbon dioxide (CO2) separation technologies used for industrial and gas treating applications.
Based in Paris, Woodoo’s technology offers a second life to low-grade wood by transforming it through green processes into a waterproof, fire-resistant and highly performative material.