After water, concrete is the most extensively used material in the world. Its numerous benefits such as strength, relative cost-effectiveness, durability, and safety have helped to earn it this position. However, the concrete industry accounts for a significant portion of total global carbon emissions - estimated at 4-8%.
This means that the industry must undergo a drastic change in the next decade in order to align itself with global climate change goals. Fortunately, much innovation is underway, which is helping to make the industry more sustainable.
Application Areas of Concrete
The earliest recorded use of concrete dates back to 6500 BC. At this time, the people of Syria and Jordan used concrete to build floors, housing, and underground cisterns. Over millennia, the use of concrete has grown and spread around the world. Concrete structures have proven their qualities of strength and durability by surviving natural disasters, wars, and even by outlasting the civilizations that built them.
Today, around 30 billion tonnes of concrete are used each year globally. The draw of strength, durability, flexibility, energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness has cemented concreted place as the most popular building material. Modern society relies on concrete to build a wide range of structures including roads, bridges, overpasses, dams, commercial buildings, homes, hospitals, schools, driveways, parking lots and more. Even buildings that are made with glass, steel or wood are most often built on a concrete foundation.
Hot Topics in Concrete
The issue of sustainability is a current hot topic in the concrete industry. The process of making concrete is very energy intensive and the industry mostly uses fossil fuels to power its processes. This means that the industry produces a vast amount of greenhouse gases associated with the use of fossil fuels - roughly 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. In addition, the industry’s processes also emit dangerous air pollution, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, all of which are associated with negative health outcomes.
Innovations in the concrete industry are helping to address the environmental impact of concrete. For example, researchers in Australia have developed a novel form of concrete reinforced with recycled plastic instead of steel. As steel is very energy-intensive, replacing it with recycled plastic can reduce carbon dioxide production by about 50%. Other companies are improving the industry’s sustainability by utilizing recycled water where possible, optimizing total aggregate gradations in concrete (thus saving the amount of cement required), and increasing the use of supplementary cementitious materials.
Graphene, which was discovered in 2004, is a two-dimensional material that has unique properties that have already been leveraged into numerous applications across a range of industries. Graphene’s light weight, super strength, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness have caused it to fall under the spotlight of the concrete industry, which is exploring how its properties can be exploited to address the environmental concerns surrounding current practices. Recently, a team at Manchester University established a novel concrete with 30% more strength than traditional concrete, reducing the volume of concrete required to achieve the same structural performance, thus lowering the emissions by reducing the amount of concrete produced.
While there is currently no single method that has helped the industry reach carbon-neutral operations, innovation in this sector is helping to reduce the environmental impact of concrete.
The Current Global Market of the Concrete Industry
The global concrete industry was valued at $364.12 billion in 2022. In this year, Asia Pacific represented the largest global region, with Western Europe coming in second. The Russia-Ukraine war has impacted the world’s capacity to recover economically from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Almost all industries were influenced by the pandemic, with many seeing less growth than expected. With the Russia-Ukraine war beginning soon after, these industries have faced further disruption with supply chains, and numerous countries have faced inflation and surges in commodity prices. Regardless of these challenges, the global concrete industry is expected to grow to a value of $527.78 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 7.6%.
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One major driver of the industry over this period will be the growing demand for affordable housing. Across the globe, governments are initiating programs to provide funds for affordable housing projects mostly aimed at serving low-income families. For example, the government of Australia has launched a grant that provides $15,000 for the purchase or construction of homes for first-time buyers.
Key industry players include China National Building Material Group Co.Ltd., Orterra, LafargeHolcimLtd., HeidelbergCement AG, Weckenmann Anlagentechnik GmbH & Co. KG, Anhui Conch Cement Company Limited, Holcim, CRH plc, Votorantim S.A, Cemex SAB de CV, UltraTech Cement Limited, Shay Murtagh Precast Ltd, Sika AG, Votorantim S.A, Grasim Industries Limited, Wells Concrete, and Taiheiyo Cement Corporation.”
Future Directions of the Concrete Industry
In the coming years, the internet of things (IoT) will play an increasingly important role in the concrete industry. The IoT refers to the growing network of connected devices, from laptops and TVs, to smartwatches, sensors, security systems, and tablets, to name a few. Already, the IOT is being leveraged to perform remote monitoring and predictive maintenance in concrete plants.
Both applications of the IoT can help the concrete industry reduce emissions. Remote monitoring, which oversees operations, can collect important data on the use of large vehicles in order to optimize operations, thereby reducing emissions associated with vehicle use. Predictive maintenance, while reducing operations downtime, can also reduce the wasted energy usage of vehicles and machines by ensuring they are functioning optimally.
While the global concrete industry faces many challenges, such as the intense demand to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become more sustainable as well as to overcome supply chain disruptions and economic downturn, it is expected to grow between 2022 and 2027 at a respectable rate. Concrete companies that are quick to use innovation to address emissions will likely be those that find success over the coming decade.
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References and Further Reading
2021. Greener AND cheaper: Graphene@Manchester solves concrete's big problem [online]. The University of Manchester. Available from: https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/greener-and-cheaper-graphenemanchester-solves-concretes-big-problem/ (Last accessed February 2023)
Annie Kane. 2016. Making concrete green: reinventing the world's most used synthetic material [online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/mar/04/making-concrete-green-reinventing-the-worlds-most-used-synthetic-material (Last accessed February 2023)
Cement And Concrete Products Global Market Report 2023 [online]. The Business Research Company. Available at: https://www.thebusinessresearchcompany.com/report/cement-and-concrete-products-global-market-report (Last accessed February 2023)
Shamsaei, E. et al. (2018) “Graphene-based nanosheets for stronger and more durable concrete: A Review,” Construction and Building Materials, 183, pp. 642–660. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2018.06.201.
Veena Singla & Sasha Stashwick. 2022. Cut Carbon and Toxic Pollution, Make Cement Clean and Green [online]. NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sasha-stashwick/cut-carbon-and-toxic-pollution-make-cement-clean-and-green (Last accessed February