The University of Virginia School of Engineering and Texas-based C-Crete Technologies have been awarded $1.18 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to develop high-performance cement materials that can be manufactured with only a fraction of the energy and carbon emissions of conventional cements.

“Ordinary portland cement is such an important building material that it is found everywhere, and it is responsible for somewhere between five to 10 percent of all climate-related pollution,” said Andres Clarens, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, which is home to UVA’s civil, environmental and systems engineering programs. “There is an urgent need to develop alternatives.”

The project will focus on developing novel calcium silicate formulations generated from waste materials such as fly ash from coal-fired power plants. These materials would then be cured under carefully controlled conditions to generate high-strength materials that are much more durable than conventional cements. The products will have a lot in common with ancient Roman cements that have lasted many millennia and were generated without the large amounts of coal used to make cement today.

Scanning electron micrograph detail of crystalline calcium silicate hydrates

This detail from a scanning electron micrograph of crystalline calcium silicate hydrates (CCSH) captures one of many different morphologies that researchers in Andres Clarens’ lab have seen in experiments. “Those materials are very similar to the ones that are responsible for providing the unbelievable strength and stability of ancient Roman cements and are the foundation to our ARPA-E work,” said Dan Plattenberger, a civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment.

UVA and C-Crete received the competitive award from ARPA-E’s OPEN+ program, a project inspired by the agency’s OPEN funding solicitations, in which teams develop innovative technologies to transform the nation’s energy system. The agency decided to create the OPEN+ cohorts — drawing from the large and impressive OPEN 2018 application pool — to focus on particular topics in energy where ARPA-E sees significant opportunities to innovate and create new communities.

The team is led by Clarens and includes Beth Opila, professor in UVA’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Rouzbeh Shahsavari, founder of C-Crete Technologies and an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. They will work to develop prototype materials that can be deployed in the pre-cast cement market.

The Clarens group will lead efforts to develop innovative methods for curing the cementitious materials using CO2, while the Opila group will characterize the chemistry of these materials. Shahsavari’s team at C-Crete are leaders in advanced cementitious materials and will focus on technical performance and commercialization of the new materials. The types of products that could emerge from this work would be transformative for an industry that is seeking ways to improve the performance of their products while reducing their carbon footprint.

Clarens is also the associate director for UVA’s Environmental Resilience Institute, one of the University’s four pan-University institutes. “This work is a great example of the type of actionable research that we have an ability to promote at UVA with the Institute,” Clarens said. “Environmental change is occurring so quickly that we need new technologies, and we need to get them into the market as soon as possible.” 

For additional information about this project, please visit clarenslab.org and ccretetech.com.

For additional information about the Environmental Resilience Institute, please visit eri.virginia.edu.

UVA researchers in laboratory

Andres Clarens (right) and Dan Plattenberger, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Clarens’ lab, went to the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to analyze mortar-like samples that they reacted in various high-pressure, high-temperature conditions at UVA. Here, they are mapping the elemental compositions of the samples in Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source facility as part of the ARPA-E work.

About the Clarens Lab at the University of Virginia: The Clarens Lab is focused on developing new ways to reduce pollution that contributes to climate change. In particular, we study the ways that greenhouse gases are manipulated, reused, and sequestered in engineered systems. At the largest scales, we carry out system-level modeling exploring the life cycle of carbon negative technologies in the manufacturing, transportation, and energy sectors. In the laboratory, we pursue complementary research in carbon capture, utilization, and storage as well as in geomaterials, such as advanced cementitious materials and engineered clays. Learn more at: clarenslab.org.

About C-Crete Technologies: Houston, TX-based C-Crete Technologies is developing lightweight cementitious materials with enhanced mechanical properties when compared to most commercially available products. They are also pioneering new methods to synthesize cements without the high temperatures needed to produce ordinary portland cement. These materials could be transformative in a variety of markets including oil and gas and construction. Learn more at ccretetech.com.