Feature Story | 12-Jul-2023

Cornell University to lead concrete decarbonization project

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. - Concrete creates resilient floors, highway bridges and city sidewalks, but its usefulness comes at a cost: Concrete production causes more than 8% of carbon emissions, nearly four times as much as the aviation industry.

Greeshma Gadikota, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in Cornell Engineering, will lead an effort to decarbonize the concrete industry by harnessing carbon dioxide-capture and mineralization technologies to produce low-carbon construction materials.

The $4 million project, part of President Joe Biden’s Clean Energy Plan, will be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Extensive carbon dioxide emissions during the whole process makes concrete one of the most carbon intensive products,” said Gadikota, who will serve as the project’s principal investigator. She is a senior faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

“This project requires us to lower the carbon intensity of concrete production by 60% or more. That’s a big challenge,” she said. “If we can implement new technology at every concrete-making site, we’ll draw down the global contribution of carbon dioxide from as high as 10% to 4%. That’s a major cut.”

With the funding, Gadikota aims to build on integrated pathways for capturing carbon dioxide and converting it into solid products, for which her group is well known to produce construction materials bearing anthropogenic carbon dioxide. That work was initially funded by Cornell Atkinson via a 2023 Academic Venture Fund and a 2022 Fast Grant from the 2030 Project.

Last year, the DOE released its Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap, which identified five domestic energy-intensive industries where decreasing carbon dioxide can have impact: cement and concrete, chemicals, food and beverage, iron and steel, and petroleum refining.

Concrete manufacturing requires copious amounts of heat from sources like coal and petroleum coke – known as petcoke, which is derived from refining oil and generates more carbon dioxide than coal. This combustion accounts for about 88% of total energy consumption within the sector, according to the DOE.

Joining Gadikota on the research project, “Accelerated Decarbonization of Cement via Integrated CO2 Capture and Mineralization to Produce High Strength Construction Materials,” will be co-principal investigator Sriramya Nair, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and a faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson. Her research focuses on the development and characterization of novel cementitious materials.

The other co-principal investigators are Costas Tsouris, Radu Custelcean and Denise Antunes da Silva, of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The group will work with industry partners concrete supplier Argos USA, Alpharetta, Georgia; steel maker Nucor Corporation, Auburn, New York; and cement supplier Votorantim Cimentos North America.

Gadikota said that the researchers will demonstrate the feasibility of the new technology at relevant industrial conditions with Argos USA, while leveraging the technical expertise of Votorantim Cimentos in sustainable construction materials and using EAF slags – electric arc furnace slag, which is a by-product generated during the steel-making process – supplied by Nucor.

Said Gadikota: “The bench-scale and pilot-scale methods developed through this project will inform full-scale implementation and commercialization of this new technology to decarbonize the cement industry.”

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