Insights from industry

Building a Greener Future: Sustainable Construction Materials

Image insights from industryMatthew GlasscottResearch Chemist, Environmental LaboratoryU.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center

In this interview conducted at Pittcon 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we spoke to Matthew Glasscott from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about sustainable construction materials.

Could you introduce yourself and your current activities?

My name is Matthew Glasscott, and I grew up in Philadelphia, a historic city with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. I suppose those ideals imprinted on me; I could never have anticipated my adventures would land me in Vicksburg, Mississippi, helping the U.S. Army defend freedom at home and abroad.

I work as a researcher and technical program manager at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). The truly unique culture of innovation, spanning all the way from concept to commercial success, is what initially drew me to this field.

Engineering the Future with Sustainable Construction

ERDC has been developing innovative solutions for a better and safer world since 1929, when our hydraulics researchers stood up to prevent river disasters like the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.

Modeling riverways, while the Corps constructed our current portfolio of over 1000 dams and tens of thousands of miles of canals, allowed us to build considerable expertise in geotechnical mechanics, environmental science, and construction engineering, each of which grew into its own separate ERDC laboratory, over the past century.

Today, I am proud to work with over 1000 scientists and engineers across seven individual laboratories focused on specific aspects of our USACE military and civil missions.

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Image Credit: ogdanhoda/Shutterstock.com

How did your previous research prepare you for the sustainable materials field?

Academia is doing a fantastic job supporting graduate education in sustainability, and my experience with Jeffrey Dick’s laboratory at UNC Chapel Hill was no different. I was my P.I.'s first graduate student, and together we set out to uncover new truths of nature in the field of electrochemistry to catalyze new energy technologies.

You hear a lot about sustainable energy these days - solar, wind, fuel cells, and other renewable energy sources that need to be stored in batteries. I am proud to have been able to team up with generations of electrochemists that have been standing up to deliver disruptive solutions for a net-zero energy grid.

We are making tremendous progress with sustainable energy, but there is a massive wall on the path toward net zero, and that wall is made of concrete.

Around 7 - 8% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions stem from manufacturing concrete alone. With the contribution from other construction materials like steel and asphalt, it is estimated that up to 13% of our global emissions stem from this industry sector.

As a significant consumer of concrete, the Army is looking for new sustainable strategies with respect to these materials to meet our Department of Defense policy goals of net zero by 2050.

What are sustainable construction materials?

Before talking about construction materials specifically, it is probably helpful to define sustainability. The UN Bruntland commission defined sustainability in 1987 as “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In this context, sustainable construction materials allow us to build stronger, better buildings while reducing carbon emissions that could profoundly impact the environment for future generations.

Why is sustainability important in construction?

When people talk about decarbonizing buildings, most of the work has focused on “operational emissions,” which can be reduced by electrifying the grid and making the buildings more efficient – think "Energy Star" electricity reporting stickers. Operational emissions are incurred every year that the building is in service.

Conversely, for construction materials, emissions are quantified by the term “embodied carbon,” i.e., carbon associated with manufacturing and assembly into a new building.

Embodied emissions are highly concentrated in the construction phase of the building and have been receiving attention as they are notoriously difficult to reduce and decarbonize.

How has the sustainable construction materials field changed over the past few years?

A huge development in the world of sustainable construction was the introduction of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which are like a list of environmental nutrition facts you might find on a box of cereal, except they report things like kilograms of CO2 and CFC emissions for a given “serving” of a specific construction material.

EPDs have been around for a decade but have only recently been mandated for all federal construction projects by the Buy Clean policy in Executive Order 14057.

Before this, we were making educated guesses regarding embodied emissions. However, manufacturers must now provide these material nutrition facts, allowing design engineers to compare different materials for maximum sustainability.

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Image Credit: Olena Sergeyeva/Shutterstock.com

What is the current environmental impact of non-sustainable construction materials?

According to the Portland Cement Association, for 1 lb of Portland cement (the binding component in concrete), roughly 1 lb of CO2 will be associated with its manufacture, one-for-one in this case.

This does not seem so bad when you consider that each time the average car uses a tank of gas, about 400 lb of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

However, picture a city with concrete skyscrapers, a concrete foundation under each one, concrete bridges, sewer systems, infrastructure, and millions and millions of pounds of cement to make that concrete.

Worldwide, we produce these materials at the gigaton scale every year - over 4 billion tons of cement alone. For construction materials, even a 1% increase in sustainability can make a huge difference based on the vast scale of their use.

What are the main factors to consider when designing a sustainable construction material?

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to reduce the embodied emissions in these materials. For instance, the one-for-one cement CO2 statistic I mentioned can be dramatically reduced by blending supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs) with Portland cement.

Indeed, the Army Corps has been spearheading these efforts for generations. We were the first ones to demonstrate fly ash SCMs in one of our megaprojects, the famous Hoover Dam. Our research program with the Army is focused on demonstrating many of these sustainable construction materials.

We are leveraging complex blends of multiple SCMs, recycled from processes like steel and computer chip manufacturing, to decrease the carbon-heavy cement component. We are exploring advanced surface treatments with asphalt to extend service life, lower the number of potholes, and thus reduce lifecycle emissions.

We are also using advanced wood products, such as cross-laminated timber, to construct assets that have traditionally been built with concrete and steel. All these thrusts have the potential to move the ball forward for these difficult-to-decarbonize materials.

What are some of the challenges associated with manufacturing sustainable construction materials?

There are two steps to overcoming this challenge on the path to net zero. First, we need abundant, sustainable commercial materials; then, we need people to use them in construction. Our ERDC research discovers, develops, and delivers solutions in both spheres.

To support the industry in developing novel materials, we are leveraging our unique testing and evaluation capabilities as a military lab to provide confidence in new materials using one-of-a-kind tools. This allows the industry to have more confidence for widespread adoption.

Construction regulations are very specific and strict, making it difficult to implement new materials. Thus, to open the regulatory aperture for sustainable strategies, our team is working directly with policy gatekeepers for the Unified Facilities Criteria and Unified Facilities Guide Specifications to update the construction specifications that all federal agencies must adhere to.

We think about this like making changes to the computer’s mainframe: once sustainable specifications are put in place, all future construction projects will be able to implement these material solutions.

By tackling this problem from both a material science and policy angle, we hope to substantially impact the ability of design engineers to incorporate sustainable materials in federal infrastructure.

Is it possible to make biodegradable construction materials? What advantages would these provide over current materials?

Bio-based construction materials, specifically those we can harness the power of biology to manufacture, are actively being investigated by our ERDC Team. These approaches, sometimes called synthetic biology or synbio, have the capacity to transform how we think about material logistics and feedstocks.

For instance, some commercial synbio concrete solutions exist where engineered bacteria create concrete for us, and we simply provide the food.

These next-generation solutions have great potential to reduce both the carbon and logistics burden associated with concrete manufacturing and transportation.

What are you working on right now that you are particularly excited about?

Our ERDC enterprise of seven laboratories allows us to take on unique multidisciplinary programs. For instance, our ERDC Coastal Hydraulics Laboratory (CHL) supports the Army Corps of Engineers’ mission to maintain our navigable waterways, which we accomplish by dredging millions of pounds of materials out of harbors and ports.

The pilots for these vessels can receive training at our virtual ship simulator, supported by the ERDC Information and Technology Laboratory (ITL). Our ERDC Environmental Lab (E.L.) is working with them to identify beneficial uses for this dredged material.

We have built new islands and restored natural wetlands with this material and are even looking to extract valuable materials like rare earth elements from it.

Our Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory (GSL) has an eye on sustainable construction and has recently partnered with these other labs to evaluate dredge material as a supplementary cementitious material.

This multidisciplinary environment allows ERDC to approach innovative solutions to make the world a better and safer place.

About Matthew Glasscott, Ph.D.

ImageDr. Matthew Glasscott is a Research Chemist and Technical Program Lead with the Environmental Processes Chemistry Branch (EPC), Environmental Lab (E.L.), U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). In this role, he leads over 20 researchers on multiple cross-functional teams that equip Soldiers and citizens with the fundamental knowledge and practical tools related to environmental Analysis via chemical sensors, climate Mitigation via sustainable construction strategies, and renewable Power via high-entropy catalysis (AMP).

Matt received his B.S. in Chemistry from Grove City College in 2016 and transitioned to industry as a petrochemical analyst for Sonneborn Refined Products. He was awarded the Bost Fellowship to pursue a PhD in analytical chemistry at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated in 2021 from the laboratory of Jeffrey E. Dick. During his graduate tenure, Matt received the GEAB Research Impact Award and an Oak Ridge Fellowship to support research at the Engineer Research and Development Center, where he continues innovating to fulfil the military and civil mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today. Matt has published over 30 peer reviewed manuscripts and is a Certified Professional Chemist (CPC) and Certified Chemical Engineer (CChE) through the American Institute of Chemists.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Pittcon.

For more information on this source, please visit Pittcon.

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