The cement industry emits large amounts of climate-damaging carbon dioxide – but alternative binders based on magnesium carbonate could even bind CO2. Concrete as a carbon sink? A research project at Swiss-based Empa, has been awarded the institute’s first Advanced Grant by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), to explore the basics of this and prepare the stage for practical applications.
More than four billion tons worldwide each year, and rising: Cement is by far the most widely used building material and inevitably releases large quantities of the CO2 ‘bound’ in the limestone during its production from burnt lime. Although manufacturers around the world have already significantly reduced the amount of their greenhouse gas emissions – but the more global warming progresses, the more urgently alternatives are called for.
Cements based not on limestone, aka calcium carbonate (CaCO3), but on magnesium carbonates are one source of hope. Empa experts have been investigating such binders for years on the basis of the mineral olivine, which is available in large quantities in Norway, for example. In simple terms, magnesium oxide obtained from this magnesium silicate can be processed with water and CO2 to produce cement. The bottom line is that more carbon dioxide is bound than emitted – in other words: a carbon sink.
Generous support for important goals
In the end, the findings from laboratory experiments and thermodynamic modeling should flow into a digital twin of magnesium carbonate cement. In other words, a simulation of the chemical and physical processes during hardening – and thus the basis, Empa experts hope, for formulations of robust concretes that bind as much CO2 as possible.