Construction is an industry constantly present in our daily lives: from the buildings in which we live and work, to the establishments in which we enjoy our leisure time, such as theatres or shopping centres, and the transport infrastructures that we use to move around.
This great presence in our lives is also reflected in great environmental and economic impacts. The sector represents nearly 40% of the total energy consumed in the European Union, 35% of its greenhouse gas emissions, and a third of both water consumption and waste generated. With these data, it’s clear why reduction of environmental impact is one of the main challenges the industry is working on today.
The sector, like society, is increasingly aware of the environment, therefore it wants to take action to solve the new environmental problems that affect us, such as the scarcity of natural resources or the increase in pollution caused diseases. In response of this situation, the industry has been facing a series of changes that are reflected in the development of a new paradigm for construction: Today, more and more efforts can be seen to move from a sector with practically linear production development, based on the extraction of raw materials, construction, demolition and waste management, towards models that are much more respectful of the environment, seeking to minimise all the impacts generated and to implement a circular economy.
New concerns, new solutions
Construction industry, continuing its efforts to address this paradigm shift and be a more environmentally friendly sector, is orienting its business strategies towards meeting the precepts of the circular economy. That is to say, not only are they looking for solutions focused on reducing the volume of waste generated or increasing the processes’ efficiency, but they are also looking to close the circle with the recycling and reuse of the generated waste, and in some cases they are even looking to take advantage of the large volumes that the sector moves to provide solutions for other industries’ wastes.
- Solutions for circular economy
One of the aspects to take into account when dealing with these circular strategies is to be able to accommodate the wide heterogeneity of the waste generated -which includes materials such as cement, ceramics, brick, stone, glass, wood, metal, or plastic. At CETIM, as a Technology Centre with extensive experience in circular economy projects, we face this problem from different perspectives. We research how to recover different organic waste as value-added materials for the sector, in projects such as Woodchem – in which we have developed chemical extraction processes to obtain soil stabilizers from the wood fraction of the waste – or Lignoprozed – in which we research biorefining processes for increasing the value of wood waste, testing its use as valuable raw material in additives for concrete.
We also innovate by obtaining new materials from inorganic waste. GeoStone and GeoStone II projects stand out here, in which we developed and optimised formulation of geopolymer concretes from slate and granite waste. In bituminous matrices we research, among others, the reuse of mineral residues for civil works using them as reinforcement for asphalt mixtures as in the Recures project.
New geopolymers testing at CETIM’s construction laboratory.
- New materials solutions
Another way to meet the challenge of reducing environmental impact is to find solutions based on new materials that reduce the need for oil-based raw materials, water resources, or quantities of raw materials.
Examples of this are projects such as Emulcell – where we have developed new sustainable bituminous emulsions using micro and nanostructured cellulose-, Hormiplast and Powerplast – in which we research and develop advanced superplasticizers, which reduce water consumption during the manufacture and application of concrete. The last example is the Cupa 4.0 project, in which we research new construction processes that reduce the amount of raw materials needed to build infrastructures. CETIM carries out different rheological studies to optimize the materials and processes for applying 3D printing to the construction industry.
- Solutions to improve the environment
As we have previously mentioned, construction is permanently present in our lives. It is practically impossible to be away from some kind of building, so ideas have emerged to combine this continuous presence with the use of materials that allow improvements in environmental conditions. CETIM applies its knowledge to develop projects and solutions using materials with environmental remediation capacities.
With EcoRoad project we have developed asphalt mixtures with zeolites capable of capturing heavy metals. Capture of heavy metals has also been the objective of the Recover project, although in this case it was focused on railway corridors, using MIPs and IIPs (molecular and Ionic Imprinted Polymers). Another example is the European project LIFE DrainRain, where a sustainable urban drainage system is being developed based on the combination of a photocatalytic porous concrete pavement and a specifically designed in-situ water treatment process.
These research projects are examples of some of the success stories in the sector in which CETIM has played an important role. They show how innovation is an essential engine of change and adaptation for the transformation of a key sector to face some of the current and future challenges of our society. With these projects, CETIM is doing its part to meet several important UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as ODS6 Clean Water and Sanitation, ODS9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, ODS11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, ODS12 Responsible Consumption and Production, and ODS13 Climate Action.
In all cases, these are lines of applied research set up with national and international driving forces, covering the entire value chain of the sector – chemical companies; Town Councils, Port Authorities and other Public Administrations; construction companies, platforms and clusters; etc. Clients and collaborators such as Cromogenia, ABN Pipe, BASF, ENCE, Copasa, Canarga, Técnicas Reunidas, COMSA Corporación, Cementos Cruz, CyE/Proyfe, Autoridad Portuaria de Ferrol – San Cibrao, Extraco, Misturas, Plataforma Tecnológica Española de la Construcción, or CUPA Group, and a long list of other companies make the Centre’s research into construction materials and their application in industry possible.