Assistant Professor Mija Hubler and Melvin E. and Virginia M. Clark Professor Al Weimer are collaborating on linked Department of Energy-funded projects to capture and repurpose carbon products from fuel sources into materials for concrete bricks. They hope to reduce pollution while also making stronger, more resilient building materials that require less maintenance and repairs over time.
The collaboration began in 2019, when the researchers received a Research and Innovation Office seed grant for their “Extremely Durable Concrete using Methane Decarbonization Nanofiber Byproducts” project. Based on the results of their initial study, they applied for two separate but related Department of Energy grants the following year.
“Our initial collaboration was motivated by the need to produce a byproduct to financially enable hydrogen for the transportation industry,” Hubler said. “We had previously shown there were benefits of adding solid carbon to concrete. We saw the potential to benefit concrete for infrastructure applications at the same time.”
The DOE approved “Extremely Durable Concrete using Methane Decarbonization Nanofiber Co-products with Hydrogen” through the Office of Energy and Renewable Energy and “Modular Processing of Flare Gas for Carbon Nanoproducts” through the National Energy Technology Laboratory in 2020. The projects’ combined funding totals $4 million.
“Depending on the optimal percent of carbon nano-product being sequestered with addition to cement and concrete, it is possible to replace as much as 25% of the hydrogen used in the U.S. that is made by greenhouse gas-generating steam methane reforming,” Weimer said. “This will have a dramatic impact on reducing CO2 emissions.”
The “Extremely Durable Concrete” project seeks to displace hydrogen production by steam methane reforming with a low-cost and scalable chemical vapor deposition process that produces value-added carbon nano-products. The “Modular Processing of Flare Gas for Carbon Nanoproducts” project will create a modular process to react methane to a value-added carbon nano-product that holds the potential to convert vented or flared natural gas into a commercially viable product.
In both cases, these carbon products can be incorporated into concrete.
“The value-added carbon nano-product ‘sequesters’ carbon from methane as a solid,” Hubler said. “The addition of the carbon nanofiber product to concrete increases the service life of concrete structures. This reduces the need for repair and reconstruction of concrete infrastructure.”
This materials science project is a joint effort between Team Weimer, housed in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and the Hubler Research Group of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering.
“The collaboration means we learn a lot about material science research across these fields,” Hubler said. “We have a joint research team of students and postdocs across both projects and departments. Additionally, consultation from our industry partners Forge Nano and National Ready Mix Concrete Association ensures the applicability of our efforts.”
Weimer has been a member of the MSE Program since its founding. Hubler is joining the program this fall.
“Since my research projects entail studies of materials innovation for structural applications, I hope my joining the MSE Program will enable the subset of my students who pursue materials development to take classes directly related to their research and be part of a student cohort of other materials researchers,” Hubler said.
She pointed toward the benefits of materials research for both the natural and built environments.
“Beyond the basic drive for improved cost and performance, structural materials such as concrete are facing a crisis due to their carbon footprint,” she said. “They are the most produced materials in the world and their manufacture has a direct impact on the future climate. As a result, there is a need and urgency to reinvent the structural materials we build with today. The field of new structural materials is exciting and beyond traditional concepts incorporating smart, living, healing and computationally designed materials.”