Precast concrete products represent between 10 and 15 percent of the North American cement and concrete market. While the figure in some European markets is 40 percent, most concrete is mixed and poured at construction sites outside the control of a factory setting (and Carbon Sense Solutions’ process). “Considering concrete is the most abundant man-made material on earth, and that the precast market is growing, the estimated carbon dioxide storage potential of this is 500 megatons a year,” Niven says. “That is on par with other global carbon dioxide mitigation solutions, such as carbon capture and geological storage.”
Research professor Tarun Naik, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for By-Products Utilization, says that all concrete absorbs carbon dioxide over time if left to cure naturally–but only up to a point. The gas usually penetrates the first one or two millimeters of the concrete’s surface before forming a hard crust that blocks any further absorption. Naik says that something as simple as using less sand in a concrete mix can increase the porosity of the finished product and allow more ambient carbon dioxide to be absorbed into the concrete. It’s simpler than Carbon Sense Solutions’ accelerated curing process and can be applied to a much larger market, he says.
Other groups are taking aim at emissions from the cement-making process itself. Researchers at MIT are seeking new ingredients in cement that are less energy intensive, while companies such as Montreal’s CO2 Solution have an enzymatic approach that captures carbon-dioxide emissions from cement-factory flue stacks, converts the greenhouse gas into limestone, and feeds it back into the cement-making process. Calera, backed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, even claims that it can remove a ton of carbon dioxide from the environment for every ton of cement it produces.