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    3 Questions: Boosting concrete’s ability to serve as a natural “carbon sink”

    Damian Stefaniuk is a postdoc at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub). He works with MIT professors Franz-Josef Ulm and Admir Masic of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) to investigate multifunctional concrete. Here, he provides an overview of carbonation in cement-based products, a brief explanation of why understanding carbonation in the life cycle of cement products is key for assessing their environmental impact, and an update on current research to bolster the process.

    Q: What is carbonation and why is it important for thinking about concrete from a life-cycle perspective?

    A: Carbonation is the reaction between carbon dioxide (CO2) and certain compounds in cement-based products, occurring during their use phase and end of life. It forms calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and has important implications for neutralizing the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and achieving carbon neutrality in the life cycle of concrete.

    Firstly, carbonation causes cement-based products to act as natural carbon sinks, sequestering CO2 from the air and storing it permanently. This helps mitigate the carbon emissions associated with the production of cement, reducing their overall carbon footprint.

    Secondly, carbonation affects concrete properties. Early-stage carbonation may increase the compressive strength of cement-based products, enhancing their durability and structural performance. However, late-stage carbonation can impact corrosion resistance in steel-reinforced concrete due to reduced alkalinity.

    Considering carbonation in the life cycle of cement-based products is crucial for accurately assessing their environmental impact. Understanding and leveraging carbonation can help industry reduce carbon emissions and maximize carbon sequestration potential. Paying close attention to it in the design process aids in creating durable and corrosion-resistant structures, contributing to longevity and overall sustainability.

    Q: What are some ongoing global efforts to force carbonation?

    A: Some ongoing efforts to force carbonation in concrete involve artificially increasing the amount of CO2 gas present during the early-stage hydration of concrete. This process, known as forced carbonation, aims to accelerate the carbonation reaction and its associated benefits.

    Forced carbonation is typically applied to precast concrete elements that are produced in artificially CO2-rich environments. By exposing fresh concrete to higher concentrations of CO2 during curing, the carbonation process can be expedited, resulting in potential improvements in strength, reduced water absorption, improved resistance to chloride permeability, and improved performance during freeze-thaw. At the same time, it can be difficult to quantify how much CO2 is absorbed and released because of the process.

    These efforts to induce early-stage carbonation through forced carbonation represent the industry’s focus on optimizing concrete performance and environmental impacts. By exploring methods to enhance the carbonation process, researchers and practitioners seek to more efficiently harness its benefits, such as increasing strength and sequestering CO2.

    It is important to note that forced carbonation requires careful implementation and monitoring to ensure desired outcomes. The specific procedures and conditions vary based on the application and intended goals, highlighting the need for expertise and controlled environments.

    Overall, ongoing efforts in forced carbonation contribute to the continuous development of concrete technology, aiming to improve its properties and reduce its carbon footprint throughout the life cycle of the material.

    Q: What is chemically-induced pre-cure carbonation, and what implications does it have?

    A: Chemically-induced pre-cure carbonation (CIPCC) is a method developed by the MIT CSHub to mineralize and permanently store CO2 in cement. Unlike traditional forced carbonation methods, CIPCC introduces CO2 into the concrete mix as a solid powder, specifically sodium bicarbonate. This approach addresses some of the limitations of current carbon capture and utilization technologies.

    The implications of CIPCC are significant. Firstly, it offers convenience for cast-in-place applications, making it easier to incorporate CO2 use in concrete projects. Unlike some other approaches, CIPCC allows for precise control over the quantity of CO2 sequestered in the concrete. This ensures accurate carbonation and facilitates better management of the storage process. CIPCC also builds on previous research regarding amorphous hydration phases, providing an additional mechanism for CO2 sequestration in cement-based products. These phases carbonate through CIPCC, contributing to the overall carbon sequestration capacity of the material.

    Furthermore, early-stage pre-cure carbonation shows promise as a pathway for concrete to permanently sequester a controlled and precise quantity of CO2. Our recent paper in PNAS Nexus suggests that it could theoretically offset at least 40 percent of the calcination emissions associated with cement production, when anticipating advances in the lower-emissions production of sodium bicarbonate. We also found that up to 15 percent of cement (by weight) could be substituted with sodium bicarbonate without compromising the mechanical performance of a given mix. Further research is needed to evaluate long-term effects of this process to explore the potential life-cycle savings and impacts of carbonation.

    CIPCC offers not only environmental benefits by reducing carbon emissions, but also practical advantages. The early-stage strength increase observed in real-world applications could expedite construction timelines by allowing concrete to reach its full strength faster.

    Overall, CIPCC demonstrates the potential for more efficient and controlled CO2 sequestration in concrete. It represents an important development in concrete sustainability, emphasizing the need for further research and considering the material’s life-cycle impacts.

    This research was carried out by MIT CSHub, which is sponsored by the Concrete Advancement Foundation and the Portland Cement Association. More

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    MIT engineers create an energy-storing supercapacitor from ancient materials

    Two of humanity’s most ubiquitous historical materials, cement and carbon black (which resembles very fine charcoal), may form the basis for a novel, low-cost energy storage system, according to a new study. The technology could facilitate the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and tidal power by allowing energy networks to remain stable despite fluctuations in renewable energy supply.

    The two materials, the researchers found, can be combined with water to make a supercapacitor — an alternative to batteries — that could provide storage of electrical energy. As an example, the MIT researchers who developed the system say that their supercapacitor could eventually be incorporated into the concrete foundation of a house, where it could store a full day’s worth of energy while adding little (or no) to the cost of the foundation and still providing the needed structural strength. The researchers also envision a concrete roadway that could provide contactless recharging for electric cars as they travel over that road.

    The simple but innovative technology is described this week in the journal PNAS, in a paper by MIT professors Franz-Josef Ulm, Admir Masic, and Yang-Shao Horn, and four others at MIT and at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

    Capacitors are in principle very simple devices, consisting of two electrically conductive plates immersed in an electrolyte and separated by a membrane. When a voltage is applied across the capacitor, positively charged ions from the electrolyte accumulate on the negatively charged plate, while the positively charged plate accumulates negatively charged ions. Since the membrane in between the plates blocks charged ions from migrating across, this separation of charges creates an electric field between the plates, and the capacitor becomes charged. The two plates can maintain this pair of charges for a long time and then deliver them very quickly when needed. Supercapacitors are simply capacitors that can store exceptionally large charges.

    The amount of power a capacitor can store depends on the total surface area of its conductive plates. The key to the new supercapacitors developed by this team comes from a method of producing a cement-based material with an extremely high internal surface area due to a dense, interconnected network of conductive material within its bulk volume. The researchers achieved this by introducing carbon black — which is highly conductive — into a concrete mixture along with cement powder and water, and letting it cure. The water naturally forms a branching network of openings within the structure as it reacts with cement, and the carbon migrates into these spaces to make wire-like structures within the hardened cement. These structures have a fractal-like structure, with larger branches sprouting smaller branches, and those sprouting even smaller branchlets, and so on, ending up with an extremely large surface area within the confines of a relatively small volume. The material is then soaked in a standard electrolyte material, such as potassium chloride, a kind of salt, which provides the charged particles that accumulate on the carbon structures. Two electrodes made of this material, separated by a thin space or an insulating layer, form a very powerful supercapacitor, the researchers found.

    The two plates of the capacitor function just like the two poles of a rechargeable battery of equivalent voltage: When connected to a source of electricity, as with a battery, energy gets stored in the plates, and then when connected to a load, the electrical current flows back out to provide power.

    “The material is fascinating,” Masic says, “because you have the most-used manmade material in the world, cement, that is combined with carbon black, that is a well-known historical material — the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with it. You have these at least two-millennia-old materials that when you combine them in a specific manner you come up with a conductive nanocomposite, and that’s when things get really interesting.”

    As the mixture sets and cures, he says, “The water is systematically consumed through cement hydration reactions, and this hydration fundamentally affects nanoparticles of carbon because they are hydrophobic (water repelling).” As the mixture evolves, “the carbon black is self-assembling into a connected conductive wire,” he says. The process is easily reproducible, with materials that are inexpensive and readily available anywhere in the world. And the amount of carbon needed is very small — as little as 3 percent by volume of the mix — to achieve a percolated carbon network, Masic says.

    Supercapacitors made of this material have great potential to aid in the world’s transition to renewable energy, Ulm says. The principal sources of emissions-free energy, wind, solar, and tidal power, all produce their output at variable times that often do not correspond to the peaks in electricity usage, so ways of storing that power are essential. “There is a huge need for big energy storage,” he says, and existing batteries are too expensive and mostly rely on materials such as lithium, whose supply is limited, so cheaper alternatives are badly needed. “That’s where our technology is extremely promising, because cement is ubiquitous,” Ulm says.

    The team calculated that a block of nanocarbon-black-doped concrete that is 45 cubic meters (or yards) in size — equivalent to a cube about 3.5 meters across — would have enough capacity to store about 10 kilowatt-hours of energy, which is considered the average daily electricity usage for a household. Since the concrete would retain its strength, a house with a foundation made of this material could store a day’s worth of energy produced by solar panels or windmills and allow it to be used whenever it’s needed. And, supercapacitors can be charged and discharged much more rapidly than batteries.

    After a series of tests used to determine the most effective ratios of cement, carbon black, and water, the team demonstrated the process by making small supercapacitors, about the size of some button-cell batteries, about 1 centimeter across and 1 millimeter thick, that could each be charged to 1 volt, comparable to a 1-volt battery. They then connected three of these to demonstrate their ability to light up a 3-volt light-emitting diode (LED). Having proved the principle, they now plan to build a series of larger versions, starting with ones about the size of a typical 12-volt car battery, then working up to a 45-cubic-meter version to demonstrate its ability to store a house-worth of power.

    There is a tradeoff between the storage capacity of the material and its structural strength, they found. By adding more carbon black, the resulting supercapacitor can store more energy, but the concrete is slightly weaker, and this could be useful for applications where the concrete is not playing a structural role or where the full strength-potential of concrete is not required. For applications such as a foundation, or structural elements of the base of a wind turbine, the “sweet spot” is around 10 percent carbon black in the mix, they found.

    Another potential application for carbon-cement supercapacitors is for building concrete roadways that could store energy produced by solar panels alongside the road and then deliver that energy to electric vehicles traveling along the road using the same kind of technology used for wirelessly rechargeable phones. A related type of car-recharging system is already being developed by companies in Germany and the Netherlands, but using standard batteries for storage.

    Initial uses of the technology might be for isolated homes or buildings or shelters far from grid power, which could be powered by solar panels attached to the cement supercapacitors, the researchers say.

    Ulm says that the system is very scalable, as the energy-storage capacity is a direct function of the volume of the electrodes. “You can go from 1-millimeter-thick electrodes to 1-meter-thick electrodes, and by doing so basically you can scale the energy storage capacity from lighting an LED for a few seconds, to powering a whole house,” he says.

    Depending on the properties desired for a given application, the system could be tuned by adjusting the mixture. For a vehicle-charging road, very fast charging and discharging rates would be needed, while for powering a home “you have the whole day to charge it up,” so slower-charging material could be used, Ulm says.

    “So, it’s really a multifunctional material,” he adds. Besides its ability to store energy in the form of supercapacitors, the same kind of concrete mixture can be used as a heating system, by simply applying electricity to the carbon-laced concrete.

    Ulm sees this as “a new way of looking toward the future of concrete as part of the energy transition.”

    The research team also included postdocs Nicolas Chanut and Damian Stefaniuk at MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, James Weaver at the Wyss Institute, and Yunguang Zhu in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. The work was supported by the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, with sponsorship by the Concrete Advancement Foundation. More

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    3 Questions: Leveraging carbon uptake to lower concrete’s carbon footprint

    To secure a more sustainable and resilient future, we must take a careful look at the life cycle impacts of humanity’s most-produced building material: concrete. Carbon uptake, the process by which cement-based products sequester carbon dioxide, is key to this understanding.

    Hessam AzariJafari, the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub’s deputy director, is deeply invested in the study of this process and its acceleration, where prudent. Here, he describes how carbon uptake is a key lever to reach a carbon-neutral concrete industry.

    Q: What is carbon uptake in cement-based products and how can it influence their properties?

    A: Carbon uptake, or carbonation, is a natural process of permanently sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere by hardened cement-based products like concretes and mortars. Through this reaction, these products form different kinds of limes or calcium carbonates. This uptake occurs slowly but significantly during two phases of the life cycle of cement-based products: the use phase and the end-of-life phase.

    In general, carbon uptake increases the compressive strength of cement-based products as it can densify the paste. At the same time, carbon uptake can impact the corrosion resistance of concrete. In concrete that is reinforced with steel, the corrosion process can be initiated if the carbonation happens extensively (e.g., the whole of the concrete cover is carbonated) and intensively (e.g., a significant proportion of the hardened cement product is carbonated). [Concrete cover is the layer distance between the surface of reinforcement and the outer surface of the concrete.]

    Q: What are the factors that influence carbon uptake?

    A: The intensity of carbon uptake depends on four major factors: the climate, the types and properties of cement-based products used, the composition of binders (cement type) used, and the geometry and exposure condition of the structure.

    In regard to climate, the humidity and temperature affect the carbon uptake rate. In very low or very high humidity conditions, the carbon uptake process is slowed. High temperatures speed the process. The local atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration can affect the carbon uptake rate. For example, in urban areas, carbon uptake is an order of magnitude faster than in suburban areas.

    The types and properties of cement-based products have a large influence on the rate of carbon uptake. For example, mortar (consisting of water, cement, and fine aggregates) carbonates two to four times faster than concrete (consisting of water, cement, and coarse and fine aggregates) because of its more porous structure.The carbon uptake rate of dry-cast concrete masonry units is higher than wet-cast for the same reason. In structural concrete, the process is made slower as mechanical properties are improved and the density of the hardened products’ structure increases.

    Lastly, a structure’s surface area-to-volume ratio and exposure to air and water can have ramifications for its rate of carbonation. When cement-based products are covered, carbonation may be slowed or stopped. Concrete that is exposed to fresh air while being sheltered from rain can have a larger carbon uptake compared to cement-based products that are painted or carpeted. Additionally, cement-based elements with large surface areas, like thin concrete structures or mortar layers, allow uptake to progress more extensively.

    Q: What is the role of carbon uptake in the carbon neutrality of concrete, and how should architects and engineers account for it when designing for specific applications?

    A: Carbon uptake is a part of the life cycle of any cement-based products that should be accounted for in carbon footprint calculations. Our evaluation shows the U.S. pavement network can sequester 5.8 million metric tons of CO2, of which 52 percent will be sequestered when the demolished concrete is stockpiled at its end of life.

    From one concrete structure to another, the percentage of emissions sequestered may vary. For instance, concrete bridges tend to have a lower percentage versus buildings constructed with concrete masonry. In any case, carbon uptake can influence the life cycle environmental performance of concrete.

    At the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, we have developed a calculator to enable construction stakeholders to estimate the carbon uptake of concrete structures during their use and end-of-life phases.

    Looking toward the future, carbon uptake’s role in the carbon neutralization of cement-based products could grow in importance. While caution should be taken in regards to uptake when reinforcing steel is embedded in concrete, there are opportunities for different stakeholders to augment carbon uptake in different cement-based products.

    Architects can influence the shape of concrete elements to increase the surface area-to-volume ratio (e.g., making “waffle” patterns on slabs and walls, or having several thin towers instead of fewer large ones on an apartment complex). Concrete manufacturers can adjust the binder type and quantity while delivering concrete that meets performance requirements. Finally, industrial ecologists and life-cycle assessment practitioners need to work on the tools and add-ons to make sure the impact of carbon is well captured when assessing the potential impacts of cement-based products in buildings and infrastructure systems.

    Currently, the cement and concrete industry is working with tech companies as well as local, state, and federal governments to lower and subsidize the code of carbon capture sequestration and neutralization. Accelerating carbon uptake where reasonable could be an additional lever to neutralize the carbon emissions of the concrete value chain.

    Carbon uptake is one more piece of the puzzle that makes concrete a sustainable choice for building in many applications. The sustainability and resilience of the future built environment lean on the use of concrete. There is still much work to be done to truly build sustainably, and understanding carbon uptake is an important place to begin. More

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    Integrating humans with AI in structural design

    Modern fabrication tools such as 3D printers can make structural materials in shapes that would have been difficult or impossible using conventional tools. Meanwhile, new generative design systems can take great advantage of this flexibility to create innovative designs for parts of a new building, car, or virtually any other device.

    But such “black box” automated systems often fall short of producing designs that are fully optimized for their purpose, such as providing the greatest strength in proportion to weight or minimizing the amount of material needed to support a given load. Fully manual design, on the other hand, is time-consuming and labor-intensive.

    Now, researchers at MIT have found a way to achieve some of the best of both of these approaches. They used an automated design system but stopped the process periodically to allow human engineers to evaluate the work in progress and make tweaks or adjustments before letting the computer resume its design process. Introducing a few of these iterations produced results that performed better than those designed by the automated system alone, and the process was completed more quickly compared to the fully manual approach.

    The results are reported this week in the journal Structural and Multidisciplinary Optimization, in a paper by MIT doctoral student Dat Ha and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Josephine Carstensen.

    The basic approach can be applied to a broad range of scales and applications, Carstensen explains, for the design of everything from biomedical devices to nanoscale materials to structural support members of a skyscraper. Already, automated design systems have found many applications. “If we can make things in a better way, if we can make whatever we want, why not make it better?” she asks.

    “It’s a way to take advantage of how we can make things in much more complex ways than we could in the past,” says Ha, adding that automated design systems have already begun to be widely used over the last decade in automotive and aerospace industries, where reducing weight while maintaining structural strength is a key need.

    “You can take a lot of weight out of components, and in these two industries, everything is driven by weight,” he says. In some cases, such as internal components that aren’t visible, appearance is irrelevant, but for other structures aesthetics may be important as well. The new system makes it possible to optimize designs for visual as well as mechanical properties, and in such decisions the human touch is essential.

    As a demonstration of their process in action, the researchers designed a number of structural load-bearing beams, such as might be used in a building or a bridge. In their iterations, they saw that the design has an area that could fail prematurely, so they selected that feature and required the program to address it. The computer system then revised the design accordingly, removing the highlighted strut and strengthening some other struts to compensate, and leading to an improved final design.

    The process, which they call Human-Informed Topology Optimization, begins by setting out the needed specifications — for example, a beam needs to be this length, supported on two points at its ends, and must support this much of a load. “As we’re seeing the structure evolve on the computer screen in response to initial specification,” Carstensen says, “we interrupt the design and ask the user to judge it. The user can select, say, ‘I’m not a fan of this region, I’d like you to beef up or beef down this feature size requirement.’ And then the algorithm takes into account the user input.”

    While the result is not as ideal as what might be produced by a fully rigorous yet significantly slower design algorithm that considers the underlying physics, she says it can be much better than a result generated by a rapid automated design system alone. “You don’t get something that’s quite as good, but that was not necessarily the goal. What we can show is that instead of using several hours to get something, we can use 10 minutes and get something much better than where we started off.”

    The system can be used to optimize a design based on any desired properties, not just strength and weight. For example, it can be used to minimize fracture or buckling, or to reduce stresses in the material by softening corners.

    Carstensen says, “We’re not looking to replace the seven-hour solution. If you have all the time and all the resources in the world, obviously you can run these and it’s going to give you the best solution.” But for many situations, such as designing replacement parts for equipment in a war zone or a disaster-relief area with limited computational power available, “then this kind of solution that catered directly to your needs would prevail.”

    Similarly, for smaller companies manufacturing equipment in essentially “mom and pop” businesses, such a simplified system might be just the ticket. The new system they developed is not only simple and efficient to run on smaller computers, but it also requires far less training to produce useful results, Carstensen says. A basic two-dimensional version of the software, suitable for designing basic beams and structural parts, is freely available now online, she says, as the team continues to develop a full 3D version.

    “The potential applications of Prof Carstensen’s research and tools are quite extraordinary,” says Christian Málaga-Chuquitaype, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Imperial College London, who was not associated with this work. “With this work, her group is paving the way toward a truly synergistic human-machine design interaction.”

    “By integrating engineering ‘intuition’ (or engineering ‘judgement’) into a rigorous yet computationally efficient topology optimization process, the human engineer is offered the possibility of guiding the creation of optimal structural configurations in a way that was not available to us before,” he adds. “Her findings have the potential to change the way engineers tackle ‘day-to-day’ design tasks.” More

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    Study: Carbon-neutral pavements are possible by 2050, but rapid policy and industry action are needed

    Almost 2.8 million lane-miles, or about 4.6 million lane-kilometers, of the United States are paved.

    Roads and streets form the backbone of our built environment. They take us to work or school, take goods to their destinations, and much more.

    However, a new study by MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) researchers shows that the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of all construction materials used in the U.S. pavement network are 11.9 to 13.3 megatons. This is equivalent to the emissions of a gasoline-powered passenger vehicle driving about 30 billion miles in a year.

    As roads are built, repaved, and expanded, new approaches and thoughtful material choices are necessary to dampen their carbon footprint. 

    The CSHub researchers found that, by 2050, mixtures for pavements can be made carbon-neutral if industry and governmental actors help to apply a range of solutions — like carbon capture — to reduce, avoid, and neutralize embodied impacts. (A neutralization solution is any compensation mechanism in the value chain of a product that permanently removes the global warming impact of the processes after avoiding and reducing the emissions.) Furthermore, nearly half of pavement-related greenhouse gas (GHG) savings can be achieved in the short term with a negative or nearly net-zero cost.

    The research team, led by Hessam AzariJafari, MIT CSHub’s deputy director, closed gaps in our understanding of the impacts of pavements decisions by developing a dynamic model quantifying the embodied impact of future pavements materials demand for the U.S. road network. 

    The team first split the U.S. road network into 10-mile (about 16 kilometer) segments, forecasting the condition and performance of each. They then developed a pavement management system model to create benchmarks helping to understand the current level of emissions and the efficacy of different decarbonization strategies. 

    This model considered factors such as annual traffic volume and surface conditions, budget constraints, regional variation in pavement treatment choices, and pavement deterioration. The researchers also used a life-cycle assessment to calculate annual state-level emissions from acquiring pavement construction materials, considering future energy supply and materials procurement.

    The team considered three scenarios for the U.S. pavement network: A business-as-usual scenario in which technology remains static, a projected improvement scenario aligned with stated industry and national goals, and an ambitious improvement scenario that intensifies or accelerates projected strategies to achieve carbon neutrality. 

    If no steps are taken to decarbonize pavement mixtures, the team projected that GHG emissions of construction materials used in the U.S. pavement network would increase by 19.5 percent by 2050. Under the projected scenario, there was an estimated 38 percent embodied impact reduction for concrete and 14 percent embodied impact reduction for asphalt by 2050.

    The keys to making the pavement network carbon neutral by 2050 lie in multiple places. Fully renewable energy sources should be used for pavement materials production, transportation, and other processes. The federal government must contribute to the development of these low-carbon energy sources and carbon capture technologies, as it would be nearly impossible to achieve carbon neutrality for pavements without them. 

    Additionally, increasing pavements’ recycled content and improving their design and production efficiency can lower GHG emissions to an extent. Still, neutralization is needed to achieve carbon neutrality.

    Making the right pavement construction and repair choices would also contribute to the carbon neutrality of the network. For instance, concrete pavements can offer GHG savings across the whole life cycle as they are stiffer and stay smoother for longer, meaning they require less maintenance and have a lesser impact on the fuel efficiency of vehicles. 

    Concrete pavements have other use-phase benefits including a cooling effect through an intrinsically high albedo, meaning they reflect more sunlight than regular pavements. Therefore, they can help combat extreme heat and positively affect the earth’s energy balance through positive radiative forcing, making albedo a potential neutralization mechanism.

    At the same time, a mix of fixes, including using concrete and asphalt in different contexts and proportions, could produce significant GHG savings for the pavement network; decision-makers must consider scenarios on a case-by-case basis to identify optimal solutions. 

    In addition, it may appear as though the GHG emissions of materials used in local roads are dwarfed by the emissions of interstate highway materials. However, the study found that the two road types have a similar impact. In fact, all road types contribute heavily to the total GHG emissions of pavement materials in general. Therefore, stakeholders at the federal, state, and local levels must be involved if our roads are to become carbon neutral. 

    The path to pavement network carbon-neutrality is, therefore, somewhat of a winding road. It demands regionally specific policies and widespread investment to help implement decarbonization solutions, just as renewable energy initiatives have been supported. Providing subsidies and covering the costs of premiums, too, are vital to avoid shifts in the market that would derail environmental savings.

    When planning for these shifts, we must recall that pavements have impacts not just in their production, but across their entire life cycle. As pavements are used, maintained, and eventually decommissioned, they have significant impacts on the surrounding environment.

    If we are to meet climate goals such as the Paris Agreement, which demands that we reach carbon-neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we — as well as industry and governmental stakeholders — must come together to take a hard look at the roads we use every day and work to reduce their life cycle emissions. 

    The study was published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. In addition to AzariJafari, the authors include Fengdi Guo of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium; and Randolph Kirchain, director of the MIT CSHub. More

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    Using nature’s structures in wooden buildings

    Concern about climate change has focused significant attention on the buildings sector, in particular on the extraction and processing of construction materials. The concrete and steel industries together are responsible for as much as 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, wood provides a natural form of carbon sequestration, so there’s a move to use timber instead. Indeed, some countries are calling for public buildings to be made at least partly from timber, and large-scale timber buildings have been appearing around the world.

    Observing those trends, Caitlin Mueller ’07, SM ’14, PhD ’14, an associate professor of architecture and of civil and environmental engineering in the Building Technology Program at MIT, sees an opportunity for further sustainability gains. As the timber industry seeks to produce wooden replacements for traditional concrete and steel elements, the focus is on harvesting the straight sections of trees. Irregular sections such as knots and forks are turned into pellets and burned, or ground up to make garden mulch, which will decompose within a few years; both approaches release the carbon trapped in the wood to the atmosphere.

    For the past four years, Mueller and her Digital Structures research group have been developing a strategy for “upcycling” those waste materials by using them in construction — not as cladding or finishes aimed at improving appearance, but as structural components. “The greatest value you can give to a material is to give it a load-bearing role in a structure,” she says. But when builders use virgin materials, those structural components are the most emissions-intensive parts of buildings due to their large volume of high-strength materials. Using upcycled materials in place of those high-carbon systems is therefore especially impactful in reducing emissions.

    Mueller and her team focus on tree forks — that is, spots where the trunk or branch of a tree divides in two, forming a Y-shaped piece. In architectural drawings, there are many similar Y-shaped nodes where straight elements come together. In such cases, those units must be strong enough to support critical loads.

    “Tree forks are naturally engineered structural connections that work as cantilevers in trees, which means that they have the potential to transfer force very efficiently thanks to their internal fiber structure,” says Mueller. “If you take a tree fork and slice it down the middle, you see an unbelievable network of fibers that are intertwining to create these often three-dimensional load transfer points in a tree. We’re starting to do the same thing using 3D printing, but we’re nowhere near what nature does in terms of complex fiber orientation and geometry.”

    She and her team have developed a five-step “design-to-fabrication workflow” that combines natural structures such as tree forks with the digital and computational tools now used in architectural design. While there’s long been a “craft” movement to use natural wood in railings and decorative features, the use of computational tools makes it possible to use wood in structural roles — without excessive cutting, which is costly and may compromise the natural geometry and internal grain structure of the wood.

    Given the wide use of digital tools by today’s architects, Mueller believes that her approach is “at least potentially scalable and potentially achievable within our industrialized materials processing systems.” In addition, by combining tree forks with digital design tools, the novel approach can also support the trend among architects to explore new forms. “Many iconic buildings built in the past two decades have unexpected shapes,” says Mueller. “Tree branches have a very specific geometry that sometimes lends itself to an irregular or nonstandard architectural form — driven not by some arbitrary algorithm but by the material itself.”

    Step 0: Find a source, set goals

    Before starting their design-to-fabrication process, the researchers needed to locate a source of tree forks. Mueller found help in the Urban Forestry Division of the City of Somerville, Massachusetts, which maintains a digital inventory of more than 2,000 street trees — including more than 20 species — and records information about the location, approximate trunk diameter, and condition of each tree.

    With permission from the forestry division, the team was on hand in 2018 when a large group of trees was cut down near the site of the new Somerville High School. Among the heavy equipment on site was a chipper, poised to turn all the waste wood into mulch. Instead, the workers obligingly put the waste wood into the researchers’ truck to be brought to MIT.

    In their project, the MIT team sought not only to upcycle that waste material but also to use it to create a structure that would be valued by the public. “Where I live, the city has had to take down a lot of trees due to damage from an invasive species of beetle,” Mueller explains. “People get really upset — understandably. Trees are an important part of the urban fabric, providing shade and beauty.” She and her team hoped to reduce that animosity by “reinstalling the removed trees in the form of a new functional structure that would recreate the atmosphere and spatial experience previously provided by the felled trees.”

    With their source and goals identified, the researchers were ready to demonstrate the five steps in their design-to-fabrication workflow for making spatial structures using an inventory of tree forks.

    Step 1: Create a digital material library

    The first task was to turn their collection of tree forks into a digital library. They began by cutting off excess material to produce isolated tree forks. They then created a 3D scan of each fork. Mueller notes that as a result of recent progress in photogrammetry (measuring objects using photographs) and 3D scanning, they could create high-resolution digital representations of the individual tree forks with relatively inexpensive equipment, even using apps that run on a typical smartphone.

    In the digital library, each fork is represented by a “skeletonized” version showing three straight bars coming together at a point. The relative geometry and orientation of the branches are of particular interest because they determine the internal fiber orientation that gives the component its strength.

    Step 2: Find the best match between the initial design and the material library

    Like a tree, a typical architectural design is filled with Y-shaped nodes where three straight elements meet up to support a critical load. The goal was therefore to match the tree forks in the material library with the nodes in a sample architectural design.

    First, the researchers developed a “mismatch metric” for quantifying how well the geometries of a particular tree fork aligned with a given design node. “We’re trying to line up the straight elements in the structure with where the branches originally were in the tree,” explains Mueller. “That gives us the optimal orientation for load transfer and maximizes use of the inherent strength of the wood fiber.” The poorer the alignment, the higher the mismatch metric.

    The goal was to get the best overall distribution of all the tree forks among the nodes in the target design. Therefore, the researchers needed to try different fork-to-node distributions and, for each distribution, add up the individual fork-to-node mismatch errors to generate an overall, or global, matching score. The distribution with the best matching score would produce the most structurally efficient use of the total tree fork inventory.

    Since performing that process manually would take far too long to be practical, they turned to the “Hungarian algorithm,” a technique developed in 1955 for solving such problems. “The brilliance of the algorithm is solving that [matching] problem very quickly,” Mueller says. She notes that it’s a very general-use algorithm. “It’s used for things like marriage match-making. It can be used any time you have two collections of things that you’re trying to find unique matches between. So, we definitely didn’t invent the algorithm, but we were the first to identify that it could be used for this problem.”

    The researchers performed repeated tests to show possible distributions of the tree forks in their inventory and found that the matching score improved as the number of forks available in the material library increased — up to a point. In general, the researchers concluded that the mismatch score was lowest, and thus best, when there were about three times as many forks in the material library as there were nodes in the target design.

    Step 3: Balance designer intention with structural performance

    The next step in the process was to incorporate the intention or preference of the designer. To permit that flexibility, each design includes a limited number of critical parameters, such as bar length and bending strain. Using those parameters, the designer can manually change the overall shape, or geometry, of the design or can use an algorithm that automatically changes, or “morphs,” the geometry. And every time the design geometry changes, the Hungarian algorithm recalculates the optimal fork-to-node matching.

    “Because the Hungarian algorithm is extremely fast, all the morphing and the design updating can be really fluid,” notes Mueller. In addition, any change to a new geometry is followed by a structural analysis that checks the deflections, strain energy, and other performance measures of the structure. On occasion, the automatically generated design that yields the best matching score may deviate far from the designer’s initial intention. In such cases, an alternative solution can be found that satisfactorily balances the design intention with a low matching score.

    Step 4: Automatically generate the machine code for fast cutting

    When the structural geometry and distribution of tree forks have been finalized, it’s time to think about actually building the structure. To simplify assembly and maintenance, the researchers prepare the tree forks by recutting their end faces to better match adjoining straight timbers and cutting off any remaining bark to reduce susceptibility to rot and fire.

    To guide that process, they developed a custom algorithm that automatically computes the cuts needed to make a given tree fork fit into its assigned node and to strip off the bark. The goal is to remove as little material as possible but also to avoid a complex, time-consuming machining process. “If we make too few cuts, we’ll cut off too much of the critical structural material. But we don’t want to make a million tiny cuts because it will take forever,” Mueller explains.

    The team uses facilities at the Autodesk Boston Technology Center Build Space, where the robots are far larger than any at MIT and the processing is all automated. To prepare each tree fork, they mount it on a robotic arm that pushes the joint through a traditional band saw in different orientations, guided by computer-generated instructions. The robot also mills all the holes for the structural connections. “That’s helpful because it ensures that everything is aligned the way you expect it to be,” says Mueller.

    Step 5: Assemble the available forks and linear elements to build the structure

    The final step is to assemble the structure. The tree-fork-based joints are all irregular, and combining them with the precut, straight wooden elements could be difficult. However, they’re all labeled. “All the information for the geometry is embedded in the joint, so the assembly process is really low-tech,” says Mueller. “It’s like a child’s toy set. You just follow the instructions on the joints to put all the pieces together.”

    They installed their final structure temporarily on the MIT campus, but Mueller notes that it was only a portion of the structure they plan to eventually build. “It had 12 nodes that we designed and fabricated using our process,” she says, adding that the team’s work was “a little interrupted by the pandemic.” As activity on campus resumes, the researchers plan to finish designing and building the complete structure, which will include about 40 nodes and will be installed as an outdoor pavilion on the site of the felled trees in Somerville.

    In addition, they will continue their research. Plans include working with larger material libraries, some with multibranch forks, and replacing their 3D-scanning technique with computerized tomography scanning technologies that can automatically generate a detailed geometric representation of a tree fork, including its precise fiber orientation and density. And in a parallel project, they’ve been exploring using their process with other sources of materials, with one case study focusing on using material from a demolished wood-framed house to construct more than a dozen geodesic domes.

    To Mueller, the work to date already provides new guidance for the architectural design process. With digital tools, it has become easy for architects to analyze the embodied carbon or future energy use of a design option. “Now we have a new metric of performance: How well am I using available resources?” she says. “With the Hungarian algorithm, we can compute that metric basically in real time, so we can work rapidly and creatively with that as another input to the design process.”

    This research was supported by MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning via the HASS Award.

    This article appears in the Autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Q&A: More-sustainable concrete with machine learning

    As a building material, concrete withstands the test of time. Its use dates back to early civilizations, and today it is the most popular composite choice in the world. However, it’s not without its faults. Production of its key ingredient, cement, contributes 8-9 percent of the global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and 2-3 percent of energy consumption, which is only projected to increase in the coming years. With aging United States infrastructure, the federal government recently passed a milestone bill to revitalize and upgrade it, along with a push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, putting concrete in the crosshairs for modernization, too.

    Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Jie Chen, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research scientist and manager, think artificial intelligence can help meet this need by designing and formulating new, more sustainable concrete mixtures, with lower costs and carbon dioxide emissions, while improving material performance and reusing manufacturing byproducts in the material itself. Olivetti’s research improves environmental and economic sustainability of materials, and Chen develops and optimizes machine learning and computational techniques, which he can apply to materials reformulation. Olivetti and Chen, along with their collaborators, have recently teamed up for an MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab project to make concrete more sustainable for the benefit of society, the climate, and the economy.

    Q: What applications does concrete have, and what properties make it a preferred building material?

    Olivetti: Concrete is the dominant building material globally with an annual consumption of 30 billion metric tons. That is over 20 times the next most produced material, steel, and the scale of its use leads to considerable environmental impact, approximately 5-8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It can be made locally, has a broad range of structural applications, and is cost-effective. Concrete is a mixture of fine and coarse aggregate, water, cement binder (the glue), and other additives.

    Q: Why isn’t it sustainable, and what research problems are you trying to tackle with this project?

    Olivetti: The community is working on several ways to reduce the impact of this material, including alternative fuels use for heating the cement mixture, increasing energy and materials efficiency and carbon sequestration at production facilities, but one important opportunity is to develop an alternative to the cement binder.

    While cement is 10 percent of the concrete mass, it accounts for 80 percent of the GHG footprint. This impact is derived from the fuel burned to heat and run the chemical reaction required in manufacturing, but also the chemical reaction itself releases CO2 from the calcination of limestone. Therefore, partially replacing the input ingredients to cement (traditionally ordinary Portland cement or OPC) with alternative materials from waste and byproducts can reduce the GHG footprint. But use of these alternatives is not inherently more sustainable because wastes might have to travel long distances, which adds to fuel emissions and cost, or might require pretreatment processes. The optimal way to make use of these alternate materials will be situation-dependent. But because of the vast scale, we also need solutions that account for the huge volumes of concrete needed. This project is trying to develop novel concrete mixtures that will decrease the GHG impact of the cement and concrete, moving away from the trial-and-error processes towards those that are more predictive.

    Chen: If we want to fight climate change and make our environment better, are there alternative ingredients or a reformulation we could use so that less greenhouse gas is emitted? We hope that through this project using machine learning we’ll be able to find a good answer.

    Q: Why is this problem important to address now, at this point in history?

    Olivetti: There is urgent need to address greenhouse gas emissions as aggressively as possible, and the road to doing so isn’t necessarily straightforward for all areas of industry. For transportation and electricity generation, there are paths that have been identified to decarbonize those sectors. We need to move much more aggressively to achieve those in the time needed; further, the technological approaches to achieve that are more clear. However, for tough-to-decarbonize sectors, such as industrial materials production, the pathways to decarbonization are not as mapped out.

    Q: How are you planning to address this problem to produce better concrete?

    Olivetti: The goal is to predict mixtures that will both meet performance criteria, such as strength and durability, with those that also balance economic and environmental impact. A key to this is to use industrial wastes in blended cements and concretes. To do this, we need to understand the glass and mineral reactivity of constituent materials. This reactivity not only determines the limit of the possible use in cement systems but also controls concrete processing, and the development of strength and pore structure, which ultimately control concrete durability and life-cycle CO2 emissions.

    Chen: We investigate using waste materials to replace part of the cement component. This is something that we’ve hypothesized would be more sustainable and economic — actually waste materials are common, and they cost less. Because of the reduction in the use of cement, the final concrete product would be responsible for much less carbon dioxide production. Figuring out the right concrete mixture proportion that makes endurable concretes while achieving other goals is a very challenging problem. Machine learning is giving us an opportunity to explore the advancement of predictive modeling, uncertainty quantification, and optimization to solve the issue. What we are doing is exploring options using deep learning as well as multi-objective optimization techniques to find an answer. These efforts are now more feasible to carry out, and they will produce results with reliability estimates that we need to understand what makes a good concrete.

    Q: What kinds of AI and computational techniques are you employing for this?

    Olivetti: We use AI techniques to collect data on individual concrete ingredients, mix proportions, and concrete performance from the literature through natural language processing. We also add data obtained from industry and/or high throughput atomistic modeling and experiments to optimize the design of concrete mixtures. Then we use this information to develop insight into the reactivity of possible waste and byproduct materials as alternatives to cement materials for low-CO2 concrete. By incorporating generic information on concrete ingredients, the resulting concrete performance predictors are expected to be more reliable and transformative than existing AI models.

    Chen: The final objective is to figure out what constituents, and how much of each, to put into the recipe for producing the concrete that optimizes the various factors: strength, cost, environmental impact, performance, etc. For each of the objectives, we need certain models: We need a model to predict the performance of the concrete (like, how long does it last and how much weight does it sustain?), a model to estimate the cost, and a model to estimate how much carbon dioxide is generated. We will need to build these models by using data from literature, from industry, and from lab experiments.

    We are exploring Gaussian process models to predict the concrete strength, going forward into days and weeks. This model can give us an uncertainty estimate of the prediction as well. Such a model needs specification of parameters, for which we will use another model to calculate. At the same time, we also explore neural network models because we can inject domain knowledge from human experience into them. Some models are as simple as multi-layer perceptions, while some are more complex, like graph neural networks. The goal here is that we want to have a model that is not only accurate but also robust — the input data is noisy, and the model must embrace the noise, so that its prediction is still accurate and reliable for the multi-objective optimization.

    Once we have built models that we are confident with, we will inject their predictions and uncertainty estimates into the optimization of multiple objectives, under constraints and under uncertainties.

    Q: How do you balance cost-benefit trade-offs?

    Chen: The multiple objectives we consider are not necessarily consistent, and sometimes they are at odds with each other. The goal is to identify scenarios where the values for our objectives cannot be further pushed simultaneously without compromising one or a few. For example, if you want to further reduce the cost, you probably have to suffer the performance or suffer the environmental impact. Eventually, we will give the results to policymakers and they will look into the results and weigh the options. For example, they may be able to tolerate a slightly higher cost under a significant reduction in greenhouse gas. Alternatively, if the cost varies little but the concrete performance changes drastically, say, doubles or triples, then this is definitely a favorable outcome.

    Q: What kinds of challenges do you face in this work?

    Chen: The data we get either from industry or from literature are very noisy; the concrete measurements can vary a lot, depending on where and when they are taken. There are also substantial missing data when we integrate them from different sources, so, we need to spend a lot of effort to organize and make the data usable for building and training machine learning models. We also explore imputation techniques that substitute missing features, as well as models that tolerate missing features, in our predictive modeling and uncertainty estimate.

    Q: What do you hope to achieve through this work?

    Chen: In the end, we are suggesting either one or a few concrete recipes, or a continuum of recipes, to manufacturers and policymakers. We hope that this will provide invaluable information for both the construction industry and for the effort of protecting our beloved Earth.

    Olivetti: We’d like to develop a robust way to design cements that make use of waste materials to lower their CO2 footprint. Nobody is trying to make waste, so we can’t rely on one stream as a feedstock if we want this to be massively scalable. We have to be flexible and robust to shift with feedstocks changes, and for that we need improved understanding. Our approach to develop local, dynamic, and flexible alternatives is to learn what makes these wastes reactive, so we know how to optimize their use and do so as broadly as possible. We do that through predictive model development through software we have developed in my group to automatically extract data from literature on over 5 million texts and patents on various topics. We link this to the creative capabilities of our IBM collaborators to design methods that predict the final impact of new cements. If we are successful, we can lower the emissions of this ubiquitous material and play our part in achieving carbon emissions mitigation goals.

    Other researchers involved with this project include Stefanie Jegelka, the X-Window Consortium Career Development Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Richard Goodwin, IBM principal researcher; Soumya Ghosh, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research staff member; and Kristen Severson, former research staff member. Collaborators included Nghia Hoang, former research staff member with MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and IBM Research; and Jeremy Gregory, research scientist in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub.

    This research is supported by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    Timber or steel? Study helps builders reduce carbon footprint of truss structures

    Buildings are a big contributor to global warming, not just in their ongoing operations but in the materials used in their construction. Truss structures — those crisscross arrays of diagonal struts used throughout modern construction, in everything from antenna towers to support beams for large buildings — are typically made of steel or wood or a combination of both. But little quantitative research has been done on how to pick the right materials to minimize these structures’ contribution global warming.

    The “embodied carbon” in a construction material includes the fuel used in the material’s production (for mining and smelting steel, for example, or for felling and processing trees) and in transporting the materials to a site. It also includes the equipment used for the construction itself.

    Now, researchers at MIT have done a detailed analysis and created a set of computational tools to enable architects and engineers to design truss structures in a way that can minimize their embodied carbon while maintaining all needed properties for a given building application. While in general wood produces a much lower carbon footprint, using steel in places where its properties can provide maximum benefit can provide an optimized result, they say.

    The analysis is described in a paper published today in the journal Engineering Structures, by graduate student Ernest Ching and MIT assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Josephine Carstensen.

    “Construction is a huge greenhouse gas emitter that has kind of been flying under the radar for the past decades,” says Carstensen. But in recent years building designers “are starting to be more focused on how to not just reduce the operating energy associated with building use, but also the important carbon associated with the structure itself.” And that’s where this new analysis comes in.

    The two main options in reducing the carbon emissions associated with truss structures, she says, are substituting materials or changing the structure. However, there has been “surprisingly little work” on tools to help designers figure out emissions-minimizing strategies for a given situation, she says.

    The new system makes use of a technique called topology optimization, which allows for the input of basic parameters, such as the amount of load to be supported and the dimensions of the structure, and can be used to produce designs optimized for different characteristics, such as weight, cost, or, in this case, global warming impact.

    Wood performs very well under forces of compression, but not as well as steel when it comes to tension — that is, a tendency to pull the structure apart. Carstensen says that in general, wood is far better than steel in terms of embedded carbon, so “especially if you have a structure that doesn’t have any tension, then you should definitely only use timber” in order to minimize emissions. One tradeoff is that “the weight of the structure is going to be bigger than it would be with steel,” she says.

    The tools they developed, which were the basis for Ching’s master’s thesis, can be applied at different stages, either in the early planning phase of a structure, or later on in the final stages of a design.

    As an exercise, the team developed a proposal for reengineering several trusses using these optimization tools, and demonstrated that a significant savings in embodied greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved with no loss of performance. While they have shown improvements of at least 10 percent can be achieved, she says those estimates are “not exactly apples to apples” and likely savings could actually be two to three times that.

    “It’s about choosing materials more smartly,” she says, for the specifics of a given application. Often in existing buildings “you will have timber where there’s compression, and where that makes sense, and then it will have really skinny steel members, in tension, where that makes sense. And that’s also what we see in our design solutions that are suggested, but perhaps we can see it even more clearly.” The tools are not ready for commercial use though, she says, because they haven’t yet added a user interface.

    Carstensen sees a trend to increasing use of timber in large construction, which represents an important potential for reducing the world’s overall carbon emissions. “There’s a big interest in the construction industry in mass timber structures, and this speaks right into that area. So, the hope is that this would make inroads into the construction business and actually make a dent in that very large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.” More