Concrete Is One of the World’s Worst Pollutants. Making It Green Is a Booming Business. - Kanebridge News
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Concrete Is One of the World’s Worst Pollutants. Making It Green Is a Booming Business.

The material accounts for more than 7% of global carbon emissions, according to some estimates

Wed, Mar 13, 2024 8:53amGrey Clock 3 min

Bill Gates , Jeff Bezos and former Los Angeles Laker Rick Fox are part of a new wave of investors and entrepreneurs looking to make one of the world’s worst pollutants greener.

Concrete accounts for more than 7% of global carbon emissions, according to some estimates. That is roughly the same as the CO undefined produced by all of India and more than double the amount produced by the global aviation industry.

Most of those emissions are caused by cement, the glue that binds together sand and gravel to make the concrete used to build roads, bridges and tall buildings.

Concrete, the second-most-used material in the world after water, is popular because it is cheap, relatively easy to produce, fire-resistant and extremely strong.

“It’s the most democratic material,” said Admir Masic , an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It is also very, very dirty. Cement is made by heating limestone and clay at around 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit in giant kilns and turning them into marble-sized granules called clinker, which are then turned into a powder and mixed with other materials. As it heats up, the limestone releases a lot of CO undefined , and the whole process is often powered by fossil fuels such as coal or gas.

Big cement producers and startups including Brimstone and Partanna, a startup based in the Bahamas and headed by three-time NBA champion Fox, are developing new technologies to produce cement while producing less CO undefined . Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which was founded by Gates and is backed by Bezos, Jack Ma and Michael Bloomberg among others, Fifth Wall and other venture firms have poured tens of millions of dollars into these companies.

These companies are being motivated in part by the federal government, which is dishing out grants and setting aside billions to decarbonise materials such as cement. Local regulators are also encouraging these new technologies. California in 2021 passed a law to cut emissions from cement and New York in 2023 issued rules that limit emissions on concrete used in state-funded construction projects.

Some companies are trying to make cement from different materials that are less polluting. Brimstone said it developed a way to make cement from rocks that contain no carbon. The company said it has raised around $60 million in venture funding to date.

Others are selling substitutes for cement so that concrete mixers need less of it. Eco Material Technologies, for example, harvests coal ash from landfills and volcanic ash from mines and sells it to concrete mixers. These substitutes aren’t new, but the company says it has worked out ways to increase its share in concrete.

“Our goal is to be able to use the last several generations of trash as the next several generations of greener concrete,” said CEO Grant Quasha .

Still others are removing pollutants from the air. The Halifax, Nova Scotia-based startup CarbonCure came up with a process to pump CO undefined into concrete as it is being made and raised $80 million in venture funding this past year.

CarbonCure pumps CO2 into concrete as it is being made. PHOTO: KENT NISHIMURA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Partanna, which uses brine from saltwater desalination to make concrete, said homes made from its material suck carbon out of the air.

It is unclear if the greener concrete alternatives will ever catch on broadly. Building codes have rigid rules on what concrete must contain, and many builders don’t like to try out new materials, Masic said.

Cost is another issue. Eco Material’s most environmentally friendly cement alternative, for example, costs around twice as much as standard cement, according to Quasha. CEO Cody Finke said Brimstone’s cement will be as cheap or cheaper than the common sort, but the company has yet to build a factory.

“If I go to the developing world and tell them you’re going to have to pay 20% more for your cement, they won’t do it,” said Eric Toone , a managing partner at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Even if some of these new technologies succeed, the startups have yet to prove that they can produce green cement at the vast quantities needed to make a dent in global warming.

Still, Toone said cement makers have no choice but to find cheap ways to cut emissions because ditching the material isn’t an option.

“Cement is sort of this wonder material,” he said. “It’s so cheap, it’s so valuable, it’s so good for what we need that it’s really hard to think of ways around it.”


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”