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Decarbonising construction with Graphene

Graphene disruption opens doors to a sustainable future for concrete says James Baker

Watching concrete dry may not be the most exciting pastime – unless it’s Graphene enhanced. Graphene – first isolated by researchers at The University of Manchester in 2004 – is the world’s first breakthrough 2D material. Its pioneering role has given Graphene iconic status and sparked a revolution in materials science with applications from water filtration and energy storage to transport and construction – including concrete.

Graphene is helping us reimagine cement. Very soon, you will be able to choose your preferred colour, texture and features. But more importantly and even beyond the aesthetics and functionality, it’s the growing global sustainability agenda that is creating renewed interest in the potential for Graphene-enhanced concrete.

The prize is clear. The construction industry is facing numerous challenges in the face of Net Zero targets, and one potential route to successful evolution is through the widespread adoption of advanced materials. The cement industry has one of the highest carbon footprints of any industrial sector, producing between 8-10% of global CO2 emissions. We are working on ways to mitigate the impact of the industry by using Graphene to substantially reduce the amount of cement, concrete and steel required in building projects – and find market-viable solutions to sustainability across the whole lifecycle of buildings and the built environment, from construction phase to operation and end-of-life.

From lab experiments to large-scale site trials, we have found our Graphene admixtures can deliver improvements in compressive, tensile and flexural strength in concrete, accelerated curing time, crack reduction and reduced water and salt permeation. Work is now ongoing towards verification and certification of Graphene-enhanced concrete to enable roll-out across the construction industry.

This follows breakthrough research by Manchester engineers who added tiny amounts of Graphene to concrete (‘Concretene’). It has been demonstrated at commercial scale with our GEIC industry partners, Nationwide Engineering, that this allows for reduction of up to 30% of material from a build project without impacting on its strength or integrity. This means Concretene is not only much greener but also potentially cheaper to use.

As we now move into real-world commercialisation of Graphene, we can see the increasing industry ‘pull’ for Graphene innovation, driven by sustainability, rather than the traditional technology ‘push’ of past advanced materials innovation.

Manchester is the global home of Graphene and the University is actively supporting ongoing research, innovation and commercialisation through Graphene@Manchester, adopting open innovation (Manchester innovation model) and supporting a growing ecosystem of startup companies at our accelerator hub – Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) which is based in The Masdar Building in Manchester.

This open ecosystem is essential as there are no single Graphene solutions for the problems we are addressing – there are various types of ‘Graphenes’ and 2D materials that are best suited for many and different purposes and of course with concrete, there are also many variables from local water to local climate. There is still some significant “know-how” needed to get the right formulation.

We are still at the early stages of this work with concrete but we are now accelerating into Graphene enhanced applications, including in the UAE.

The Road to Commercialisation

Today, we are looking at Graphene enhanced polymer composite concrete (zero cement and water) with another GEIC partner, Graphene Innovations Manchester (GIM), as sustainability drives new momentum for concrete innovation, especially in the UAE. This may not be suitable yet for high-rise buildings but for road building and civil infrastructure, it has huge potential – and uses recycled plastic waste, adding another benefit of a reduction and re-use of waste materials, a growing problem in UAE and around the world.

GIM was founded by Manchester University graduate, Dr. Vivek Koncherry, who recently signed an MoU with Quazar Investment Company to create a new company in the UAE. This will be one of the most ambitious projects to date to commercialise graphene as it fast-tracks cutting-edge R&D into large-scale manufacture – an investment vision worth a total of $1bn.

This new venture will develop and produce premium, environmentally-friendly products using advanced 2D materials, including breakthrough Graphene-enhanced concrete that does not need cement or water and can be made using recycled materials. I believe this is a seminal moment for the commercialisation of Graphene as it demonstrates huge confidence in the potential for this advanced material to help lead our transition into a Net Zero world.

The GIM approach promises value creation and more – a smart and functional cement in different colours, textures and features, in which sensors and membranes could also be embedded – a convergence of the physical and digital aligned with the UAE’s smart city ambitions.

Of course, the construction sector will rightly ask about design codes, how a new material will be certified and its performance after 20 years. While we may not have all the data or engineering experience yet, GIM is prepared to take risks in small scale projects and is generating good results and data, and gaining a lot of confidence. I can see parallels with the adoption of carbon fibre, which is now almost ubiquitous, and those who believed at the time that we would never fly in ‘plastic planes’.

The UAE is rapidly emerging as the world’s innovation lab and test bench, and we love the ambition in the country. Abu Dhabi plays a vitally important role within the Graphene eco-system in which Masdar and the Khalifa University of Science and Technology are partnering with Graphene@Manchester on research and commercialisation.

Our experience is that the GEIC is a catalyst for innovation and our Manchester innovation model helps scale this and nurtures a rapid ‘make or break’ approach to testing applications. Graphene is a great fit with the UAE’s vision and has the resources and talent required – the country aims to create the future as we can see clearly, in this Year of Sustainability.

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