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New materials: Reducing building's embodied energy

The construction industry is one of the biggest consumers of energy and raw materials, and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. EU research into innovative new building materials is helping the industry reduce its carbon footprint.

Industrial Technologies icon Industrial Technologies
Energy icon Energy

CO2 emissions from making concrete account for a staggering 5% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Other building materials such as steel, brick and plastic need a lot of energy to manufacture, and the minerals and ores used in them must all be mined, quarried and drilled for in energy-intensive processes to extract them from the earth. To tackle this issue, EU research is being conducted to develop new technologies and materials that minimise what is known as ‘embodied energy’ – the sum of the energy needed to produce a material, including its sourcing and manufacture – in order to make construction more sustainable. There are many ways that this can be done, as a raft of EU projects in the field is demonstrating. Concrete, for instance, can be made partly from secondary raw materials such as municipal solid waste, old plastic and electrical equipment or polyurethane foam, as one project shows. Concrete may also in some cases be replaced by bio-composite materials and resins produced from agricultural waste and feedstock, and the stems of tough plants like flax and jute. New kinds of cement are being developed, based on low-carbon binders to replace those used traditional varieties such as Portland. CO2 emissions for the new binders are lower since they use less calcium, and hence less limestone is needed. A new generation of concrete-based construction materials based on these binders could reduce embodied energy by 30%, lower costs by 15% and improve insulation properties by 20%. The beauty of these new components is that they do more than reduce the building industry’s carbon footprint. They are indeed proving to be cheaper and better performing than, and as strong as, traditional materials – and may be more fire-resistant, impermeable, provide better noise and heat insulation, and offer a cleaner indoor air environment due to the absence of volatile compounds. This CORDIS Results Pack presents some of the latest breakthroughs enabled by EU funding in this field. Project partners include European construction companies as well as laboratories, universities and other research institutes.