Construction cranes tower over a building site.

Ohio researchers seek ways to turn coal waste into sustainable building materials

Reducing transportation emissions and developing clean energy production solutions have been at the forefront of climate action for years. But fewer strategies have focused on reducing the environmental impact of construction and building materials, according to Jason Trembly, a mechanical engineering professor at Ohio University

“One of the major areas that R&D [research and development], industry, and academia are starting to address is looking holistically at all the components that go into emissions, sustainability, and climate change,” he said. “Our building practices and the materials we utilize in our building practices are starting to receive attention and be addressed.” 

The built world and its supply chain bears a significant environmental impact and it has the potential to increase with growth in the global population. “The amount of construction required to meet building capacity for population growth over the next several decades is going to be absolutely tremendous. Some estimates double the amount of buildings globally,” Trembly said. That prompted him to delve into research on more sustainable construction materials. 

The innovation

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded a total of $1 million in grants for Trembly’s team to continue working on two projects to develop the construction materials. They aim to create two carbon-based products as alternatives to existing construction materials: carbon foam and a plastic composite with carbon filler. The carbon materials would be less energy- and emissions-intensive across their supply chains and life spans than commonly used construction materials, such as concrete.

The products are composed of coal mining waste materials. The team is conducting simulations and manufacturing tests to determine the materials’ properties and suitability for various construction applications. The composite already shows promise as a pipe and board material and the foam is intended to be cladding and insulation.

The benefits

The composite’s “cradle-to-gate product lifecycle” energy consumption is 60% lower than cement-based materials, and the foam is expected to be even better once it is fully developed.

“Typical coal use has drawbacks in terms of CO2 emissions,” Trembly said. “What’s different about what we’re doing is that the carbon goes into the process, but then the carbon stays in the final product. We think there are advantages in terms of [reducing] manufacturing energy requirements and emissions.” 

The materials are believed to last longer, cost less, and be more oxidation- and fire-resistant than some traditional construction materials.

What’s next

The team recently began working on the foam product concept, so development and commercialization likely will take a few years. However, they are well on the way to commercializing the composite and in the next 6 to 8 months hope to “identify the speed with which we can push the technology forward.” They already tested manufacturing full boards from the engineered plastic and aim to develop formulations that contain at least 70% carbon by weight.

On being Midwest-based

Manufacturing should center around a product’s supply chain, and the Midwest is well equipped for a carbon construction material supply chain, Trembly said. The region has a legacy supply of the main feedstock: mining waste material. The companies the research team already is working with are based in the Midwest, and the region has an ample manufacturing workforce.

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