Climate 21

Using concrete as a carbon sink? A chat with Prof Volker Sick

March 17, 2021 Tom Raftery / Volker Sick Season 1 Episode 16
Climate 21
Using concrete as a carbon sink? A chat with Prof Volker Sick
Chapters
Climate 21
Using concrete as a carbon sink? A chat with Prof Volker Sick
Mar 17, 2021 Season 1 Episode 16
Tom Raftery / Volker Sick

Stopping global emissions is not enough. We have to also find ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it.

One of the biggest contributors to global emissions is the production of concrete. Imagine if concrete production could be turned from a carbon emitting process into a carbon sink... That is one idea the Global CO2 initiative is looking into. They have come up with a new way to make concrete that uses CO2 as an ingredient. It is an exciting idea, so I reached out to the Director of the Global CO2 Initiative Prof Volker Sick to come on the podcast to talk about this idea.

We had a fascinating conversation, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you enjoy it too.

If you have any comments/suggestions or questions for the podcast - feel free to leave me a voice message over on my SpeakPipe page, head on over to the Climate 21 Podcast Forum, or just send it to me as a direct message on Twitter/LinkedIn. Audio messages will get played (unless you specifically ask me not to).

And if you want to know more about any of SAP's Sustainability solutions, head on over to www.sap.com/sustainability and if you liked this show, please don't forget to rate and/or review it. It makes a big difference to help new people discover the show. Thanks.

And remember, stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane!

Music credit - Intro and Outro music for this podcast was composed, played and produced by my daughter Luna Juniper

Show Notes Transcript

Stopping global emissions is not enough. We have to also find ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it.

One of the biggest contributors to global emissions is the production of concrete. Imagine if concrete production could be turned from a carbon emitting process into a carbon sink... That is one idea the Global CO2 initiative is looking into. They have come up with a new way to make concrete that uses CO2 as an ingredient. It is an exciting idea, so I reached out to the Director of the Global CO2 Initiative Prof Volker Sick to come on the podcast to talk about this idea.

We had a fascinating conversation, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you enjoy it too.

If you have any comments/suggestions or questions for the podcast - feel free to leave me a voice message over on my SpeakPipe page, head on over to the Climate 21 Podcast Forum, or just send it to me as a direct message on Twitter/LinkedIn. Audio messages will get played (unless you specifically ask me not to).

And if you want to know more about any of SAP's Sustainability solutions, head on over to www.sap.com/sustainability and if you liked this show, please don't forget to rate and/or review it. It makes a big difference to help new people discover the show. Thanks.

And remember, stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane!

Music credit - Intro and Outro music for this podcast was composed, played and produced by my daughter Luna Juniper

Prof Volker Sick:

It is a material that is designed to really hold enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. And that's key, right? We have a huge, huge surplus of co2. Where do we stick it? We can pump it on the ground force that works, but it's expensive. We make concrete anyway. Let's put the co2 in there.

Tom Raftery:

Good morning, good afternoon or good evening wherever you are in the world. This is the climate 21 podcast, the number one podcast showcasing best practices and climate emissions reductions. And I'm your host, global Vice President for SAP. Tom Raftery. Climate 21 is the name of an initiative by SAP to allow our customers calculate, report and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In this climate 21 podcast, I will showcase best practices and thought leadership by SAP, by our customers by our partners on by our competitors if their game in climate emissions reductions. Don't forget to subscribe to this podcast in your podcast app of choice to be sure you don't miss any episodes. Hi, everyone. Welcome to the climate 21 podcast. My name is Tom Raftery with SAP and with me on the show today I have my special guest Volker Volker, would you like to introduce yourself?

Prof Volker Sick:

Tom, thank you for having me today. My name is Volker Sick professor at the University of Michigan and also director of the global co2 initiative.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, well, I think most of us can figure out what the University of Michigan is. But what's the global co2 initiative.

Prof Volker Sick:

So it's a it's an entity and organization housed at the University of Michigan. And we are looking at developing and deploying technologies that can help us address climate change related problems. And the way we do that is to look at the co2 molecule a little differently, not treating it as an enemy. say, Okay, what can we do to remove some of it at least from the atmosphere or avoid it introduced into the atmosphere. So we learn how to actually make products out of the co2. The whole organization is geared towards that we do everything from developing technologies all the way to force educating the future workforce. After all, we are at a university.

Tom Raftery:

Nice, nice, nice. So this is this is basically what's broadly called carbon capture and usage, is that correct?

Prof Volker Sick:

That is correct. So of course, we first need to have the co2 at hand, it's a gas. So that poses some challenges. And then we use it to make products that we need, that we currently make in a different way. In a sense, you know, we're looking at a nature so often what's, what's one person's waste is someone else's raw material. That's how we look at it.

Tom Raftery:

Ok, so can you A) maybe give me some examples of a where you're getting the feedstock carbon and B), then what you're doing with this waste carbon, what are you making from it?

Prof Volker Sick:

Right. So, as always, it's easiest to collect bits and pieces if they are in high concentration. Right. So the first the first way of looking at collecting co2 is from emissions. We still have many, many fossil fuel based power plants, so we can harvest the co2 there. There are many industrial processes that release co2, look at steelmaking or cement production. Cement production and of itself is responsible for up to 8% of the co2 emissions every year. So going to the cement factories and harvesting it, there is a really good way of doing that all the way to your brewing, corn ethanol production, co2 is being emitted that could be collected. And then lastly, it also can be taken out directly from air. We know that this is one of the key issues, why we why we worry about this, there's too much co2 in the air. But while I say too much, it still is tiny in concentration compared to what comes out of a cement factory. So it requires a lot of effort, a lot of energy. But regardless, once we have it, it's the same stuff. And then we can look at making many many many different products. Think about everything that contains carbon organic chemistry products. These are many of the chemicals soaps, polymer materials, we can look at making carbon black. All of that is is a Essentially a different way of making the same products, we currently already use the carbon outcomes in the co2 instead of petroleum. And we can also look at what else can we make you if you have the raw materials like being in the kitchen, being a chef, what can I cook with that stuff. So, with co2, I can actually also make new building materials, I can stick it into concrete, partially reversing what has happened, when I make cement, where I bake, minerals, drive out the co2, sticking it back in will turn it into a rock. And that is actually very exciting. Because once it's in that rock, it stays there. So that helps me address this climate problem. It's removing it from from the environment for good.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, and that that seems like a nice kind of almost closed loop system. Because, you know, as you say, creating cement in the first place, causes a huge amount of emissions. But if you can capture that, and then use that to then make the concrete, you haven't released that co2 that would otherwise have gone out into the atmosphere from the creation of the concrete. Right? cement.

Prof Volker Sick:

Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So so this is this is, this is a really good way of looking at it, right. So that, that we really are mindful of of our resources, we do not put anything to waste and look at how we can sort of repurpose what otherwise ends up in the atmosphere. And the same would be true for for plastic materials might when they decompose, we burn them, that's you, too, can be harvested and turned back into plastics. Okay.

Tom Raftery:

Nice. Nice. And with the concrete that's produced in this way. I mean, you said it makes it kind of almost like a rock. And I saw during the week as well, an article you forwarded about bendable concrete, can you can you talk a little bit about that?

Prof Volker Sick:

Certainly. If we look at co2 in concrete, that's sort of unusual to begin with. That's next traditionally, how concrete is being made? And and and from a researchers point of view, that's an okay, if we do that, what else can we think about modifying for concrete? concrete is a material that has been it's fundamental form the use for 1000s of years. But what's what's common to two concrete materials is why they're very strong, we can build enormous structures, they're also very brittle, concrete doesn't bent in therefore, it's very easy to crack it. And once it's broken, that's it. structure is, is no longer usable, or at least it's it's severely impaired. Where I left here in the state of Michigan, that's a significant problem for roads, and where we have lots of potholes, because concrete breaks, right. And if we could avoid that, that will be enormous. We spend half of our efforts in concrete making on repair. So where it's it's huge, it's we make 10s of billions of tons of concrete every year. Imagine we have to make a fraction of that just because it lives longer. So the question is how how can you make concrete that that lasts longer? What what would have to be the case with hertz that it is already strong, right? So it can it can it can take the load, huge buildings, enormous dams to old, the old water and whatnot else. The problem again, is that brittle nature that it just cracks like a like a like a wave or a crack an egg. Exactly a shell of an egg. And so how can I avoid this? Well, what if that concrete could bend a little bit? What if I make it slightly flexible? Not not bendable, like a like a like a wooden board, but somewhere between the stiff concrete material and the wooden board? And that's sort of the idea behind this bendable concrete. And then the question then is how do I achieve that? Me too, look at replacing some of the materials in the concrete with finer powders instead of the coarse grains. So it's one of the starting points, but the real secret sauce lies in actually tiny little fibers. So we we look at these concrete materials, exactly as you would describe a composite material right? These epoxy, plastic materials that have less fibers in it, you know what it was more kinds of containers. And so if we if we make concrete in the same way, and he now begins to be a little more flexible, because there is this polymer, we can stretch, we can stretch polymer films, we use that in our kitchens. So natural that is now in their concrete to a substantial fraction, the concrete will slightly be bendable. And therefore, if there's excessive loads, you can sort of move out of the way and then rebound before breaking. If it does break, he will not fall apart, like a traditional concrete will create very, very small, tiny, tiny little cracks. As soon as a human here or less, okay, and the fibers will hold together the remainder of the concrete. And in that little tiny crack, water and carbon dioxide from the air can penetrate and actually filled that crack. So it makes this material actually self healing. concrete is cured by mixing the cement with water and co2. So it's it's a fascinating material that Professor Lee in our civil engineering department has invented. And there are many flavors of that material that have different bendability that additional properties that one can can develop. And lastly, it is a material that is designed to really hold enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. And that's key, right? We have a we have a we have a huge, huge surplus of co2, what do we stick it, we can pump it on the ground. Of course that works. But it's expensive. We make concrete Anyway, let's put the co2 in that.

Tom Raftery:

Nice. And I also saw in the article that reduced the requirement for steel for strengthening concrete,

Prof Volker Sick:

Right. steel needs to be in concrete to make it stronger, stiffer so that the structure doesn't doesn't break when it moves. But since that concrete in itself will, will slightly shift when a load is exposed. We don't need that much steel. And of course, that is that is a critical win for two reasons. One is steel production in of itself is producing a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. If we need to make less, that's better. And it also is a significant cost when I when I design buildings or bridges, the the amount of steel in there is significant.

Tom Raftery:

And this this concrete and then of course, the steel as as well as it has in itself a significant carbon impact. So reducing that reduces it's kind of a double whammy, it reduces the overall impact.

Prof Volker Sick:

Exactly, exactly. And you know that that's I think overall how we need to look at today's problems, whether these are co2 related or not, you need to look at synergies, you need to look at the impact of the whole system from start to finish. If we look at solutions in isolation, that might work in that isolated viewpoint, but it might make other things worse here as you say we have a double win.

Tom Raftery:

Yeah, that that concrete is there a significant price difference between it and regular concrete?

Prof Volker Sick:

Yes, of course, I will, I will not want to sort of say that we have the solution to all of our problems here. It is it is more expensive than regular concrete for several reasons. One is of course, harvesting the carbon dioxides costs, money and energy. So that is one thing and then also the raw materials that also go into that concrete mainly the fibers can be quite costly. So all in all, depending on the quality, the ductility that you want, these materials can easily cost twice as much as regular concrete, which is of course a problem. And how do we how do we think about this? Is there ever going to be a solution to it. And of course, we all know about the economies of scale as we make things more, more abundantly, they get cheaper and all that but there's a limit. It's more effort, there's more stuff in it compared to regular concrete, so it will remain quite likely more expensive. However, as we start To talk about this concrete, since it's bendable, it doesn't break as easily, it lives longer. So I don't have to replace it as off. So over its lifetime, it actually can be quite cost competitive, if not better. So it becomes a question of financing such projects. How do you how do you convince a buyer that the upfront expense is worth it, because you don't have to worry about it down the road. Now, if I'm not, if I'm if I'm commuting on a freeway that doesn't have potholes, it's totally worth it. But if I have to make decisions, let's say on a public budget, that would significantly increase construction costs, that's a different story. You're responsible to your taxpayers. So it's, it's it's a challenge that we have, have worked to do to overcome educate and explain the long term benefits?

Tom Raftery:

Would carbon pricing help?

Prof Volker Sick:

Undeniably, I mean, any, any, any pricing? Any any carbon dividend or tax rebate? is sort of a a negative component and the cost of making that material? So if I don't have to pass it on to the consumer, yes, it will certainly become cost competitive. So his question is, do we have the will? Do we have the desire, we have the political cloud to get there?

Tom Raftery:

Yeah, I mean, what what we're talking about is a carbon capture and usage or carbon capture and storage, are two hugely important things that are, I think, still very immature technologies, because they're important because even with all of the, you know, great work that's happening right now, to reduce the emissions, the emissions are still our emissions are still going up, despite all that work. But even with that, we're at you know, 400 420 parts per million, which on the one side for you for extracting heat from the air isn't a lot. But for, you know, everything else on the planet, it's way too much. So we are going to have to figure out ways to remove co2 from the air and put it somewhere whether it's put in use or put it in long term storage. So this, this is really important stuff,

Prof Volker Sick:

It definitely is and, you know, what, what makes it even more challenging is that we really don't have time, we need to tackle that now and need to tackle it at scale. I mean, we begin to see signs of the climate running away. In other words, sort of nonlinear effects taking over and leading to temperature extremes, weather extremes that we haven't seen in human history. And therefore we cannot wait with with active countermeasures. Because on the other hand, it's also clear that we cannot just stop emitting more co2 Vitaminas, human societies cannot just abruptly change what has gradually been built up over centuries. So that takes time. But I mean, if we if we look at the magnitude of the problem, in experimental facilities, instead of pilots efforts, annually, we currently capture about 17 million tons of co2. In order for us to help stabilize the climate, along with massive emissions reductions. Projections ranged from five to 15 billion tonnes a year that have to be removed. So 100 times more.

Tom Raftery:

And just to clarify, that's billion with a B

Prof Volker Sick:

billion with a B. Yep. So it's, it's it's a lot. It is a lot, as I said, about 100 times more than what we currently do. And and then, of course, we need to handle all that. That's a lot of material.

Tom Raftery:

One way I try and get people to think about this is, you know, I think, what what, what is a tonne of co2 volumetrically? Let's say it's roughly the size of a small town car. Now, I might be slightly there in terms of the volume, but you know, it's probably that order of magnitude.

Prof Volker Sick:

Yeah, I mean, I think what what might be even even easier to grasp is, if we look at this in terms of mass weight, if we look at 1 million tonnes of co2 would be the equivalent of the weight of 17 million humans. So that is staggering.

Tom Raftery:

That's 1 million we have to get to 15 billion.

Prof Volker Sick:

Yes, exactly. So that would be just 1 billion times is the equivalent of twice the earth's population? I, so

Tom Raftery:

we have to get to 15 billion a year.

Prof Volker Sick:

Right? Exactly.

Tom Raftery:

It's an enormous challenge.

Prof Volker Sick:

It is, it is it is. And you know, I think we don't we don't see and grasp. That's the problem, because the introduction of co2 happens gradually, it's dispersed. Everybody does a little bit here and there, we don't see it, you can smell it, it doesn't irritate your eyes. So it's only now becoming more clear in the public eye that we have a massive problem. And what we have sort of done needs to be undone at least to a significant level, in a fraction of the time, we had 200 plus years to create the situation. We have less than 100, nearly 50 to actually fix it.

Tom Raftery:

Yeah. Cuz we reverse it. Yeah. Yeah. It's not enough to stop the runaway, it's, we have to actually reverse it.

Prof Volker Sick:

Exactly. I mean, that's exactly the thing, right? It's not, it's not enough to sort of stop polluting, and the rest is just sort of around us. And at the same time, we need to think about, okay, life on planet Earth is carbon based. A lot of the things we use, for very good reason, a nature of the carbon atom just lends itself to it. We can't avoid using carbon. I mean, apart from our metabolism, but just choosing technologies to make the things that are around us, it's almost impossible to replace everything that is not carbon containing with it's something that's not carbon containing. So how do we do this, if we if we, if we tap into the ground to extract more carbon, we make the problem worse. But then we have this abundant source in the atmosphere. And as you described earlier, this circularity in the processes, so we can base our our needs on on harvesting net co2, the concrete not without a cost.

Tom Raftery:

Yeah. So that was that was something I was going to get to as well, because it does introduce greater costs to the system, because it requires significant amount of energy to capture the carbon. And, and you you have to think that, you know, some form of carbon credits or carbon pricing, are going to help with that, as well as you know, economies of scale as we start to do it on a huge, huge Well, on the scale that we need to do it.

Prof Volker Sick:

I absolutely agree. And, of course, every time every time you raise the the needs, or the just the mere idea of a new tax, people react, typically very negatively. But let's look at it from a different point of view. If we if we think about co2 as a waste product, and we just dump it right, it just goes away. So in a sense, it's very similar to what happens with our wastewater, with our our domestic waste industrial waste 1000 years ago or so with far fewer humans on Earth. This was much of a problem, the things that were made were all nature based, they decompose that were repurposed. But as human societies sort of, let me say, condensed into cities in specialized net cycle was broken. And we now had to create the means the mechanisms and and in the the financial framework to actually handle that waste. So we don't think twice about paying for wastewater for domestic garbage pickup and all that. So I think over time, it will likely become natural that we have to pay for handling co2. Yeah, and if you look at if you look at some projections, even though it sounds in the context of billions of tons of co2, and maybe $100 a ton to pay for sounds like an awful lot of money. But if you look at how much it would actually add to the cost of the products we use, it's not that much. It's a few cents to two liter of gasoline. Now, of course, that hurts, it hurts many people. But if we look at the fluctuation of the gasoline price, it's really not even noticeable in that context. Sure. So I think we have to bite that bullet.

Tom Raftery:

And concrete is a great example because it is you know, something that is fixed and solid and typically stay Is there for decades, which is ideally what you want, with some like way of sequestering carbon, preferably longer than decades. Are there any other products that you're looking at that are as good as this particular one?

Prof Volker Sick:

Well, I think any any type of of rock like material, you can, you can also just make make gravel that you would then use in construction or in your yard. There are minerals, there are industrial wastes, that you could react with co2. And and you have yet another rock like material that stays around like, like mountainside mountains are made out of limestone or other carbonates. And they last for millions of years. So it's it certainly it certainly is a broad opportunity to take care of a lot of carbon dioxide and create economic wealth, right. It's not that we just pay for the waste disposal, we actually make something that creates an income and it employs people. Right. It's not forget that.

Tom Raftery:

Yeah, of course, of course, we have to be contributing to the economy as well. Yep, no doubt. Right, Volker, we're heading towards the end of the podcast. Now, is there any question I have not asked you or any topic we've not covered? That you think it's important for people to be aware of?

Prof Volker Sick:

Well, I think it's, it's really important to think about the urgency of this problem, right? And how we can accelerate this, how we can how we can overall creates an ecosystem that maybe has to go very deep in the way we do business. I talked earlier about the the cost of concrete being higher for the co2 based bendable concrete. But if you look at it in the overall context of a construction project, the cost of the materials is often insignificant. Right? So but to you, as a concrete supplier doesn't doesn't help, right? If your product is not cost competitive, you will not get to contract. So how do we how do we handle those kinds of things. And part of part of that is what we see in, in legislation, for example, that we see in New York states and others with the low, low body carbon purchase mandates. So you create that incentive to accelerate the introduction into the market. But else that really has to start within the universities already. We have to, we have to look at at least some of the research being directed with a purpose with the intent to commercialize the results. So bringing the whole value chain, the whole ecosystem of the commercialization space, in the mix is critically important. Yeah. Again, we can't leave that to market forces alone. It just, there is not enough time, and therefore we have to really work on that.

Tom Raftery:

Okay. Makes sense. Given all we've talked about so far, Volker are you optimistic for our future?

Prof Volker Sick:

I am. I mean, look, if humans weren't optimistic Overall, we wouldn't exist. We wouldn't exist anymore. I you know, I think that the problem is daunting. The problem is daunting, but we do have, we do have solutions that will work. And we will need to see that they actually get further developed and deployed. And it's actually Yes, I am and will remain optimistic.

Tom Raftery:

Super, super Volker, If people want to know more about yourself, are the global co2 initiative are the University of Michigan or any of the things we talked about today? Where would you have me direct them?

Prof Volker Sick:

I think the easiest entry point also keep it in the context. The name would be our website, www dot global co2 initiative.org. From there, there are links to the university to individual projects to myself, and also our social media accounts. LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Tom Raftery:

Okay. Perfect Volker. That's been great. Thanks. A million for coming on the podcast today.

Prof Volker Sick:

Tom. It's been a pleasure talking with you and have a wonderful rest of t e day?

Tom Raftery:

Thank you. Okay, we ve come to the end of the sh w. Thanks, everyone for listenin . If you'd like to know more ab ut climate 21 Feel free to drop e an email to Tom dot Raftery at SAP comm or connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter. If you d like to show please don't forg t to subscribe to it n your podcast application of ch ice to get new episodes as oon as they're published. Als , please don't forget to rate and review the podcast reall does help new people to find th show. Thanks. Catch you