Green concrete, resilient buildings in works at CU

Sulapha Peethamparan, Clarkson University assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is working to develop a more environmentally friendly form of cement-free concrete that doesn’t leach chemicals into water. Courtesy Clarkson University

Sulapha Peethamparan, Clarkson University assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is working to develop a more environmentally friendly form of cement-free concrete that doesn’t leach chemicals into water. Courtesy Clarkson University

Forget sustainable — try resilient.

In the world of energy-efficient buildings, a new trend is emerging. According to Andrea R. Ferro, an associate professor in Clarkson University’s department of civil and environmental engineering, work is now being done to create buildings that can be temporarily self-sustaining and, yes, resilient.

“The idea is that the building would be able to provide services to the occupants, like clean air and water and comfort with temperature and lighting, independently,” she said. “It’s not that the building would be off the grid or stand alone, but that the building could manage interruptions in network services. There could also be clusters of buildings where a resource that’s produced in one building could be used in a different building.”

Ideally, the resilient structures would be capable of producing and reusing their own water, power and other resources for short amounts of time —a necessity, Dr. Ferro says, in an increasingly disruptive climate. Along with other researchers at Syracuse University and the City College of New York, she is submitting a pre-proposal to the National Science Foundation to establish the Engineering Research Center for Healthy and Resilient Urban Buildings.

If funded, the new research center would allow scientists and engineers to use various existing technologies (everything from energy sensors to active and passive solar energy systems to green roofs) to achieve resiliency and sustainability within existing as well as future buildings.

“There are many new technologies and approaches for reducing energy use in buildings and producing good indoor air quality and water quality. Some of these strategies use living systems, so we’ve adopted them as well,” Dr. Ferro said. “These technologies are already in use, but we feel that there needs to be additional research to optimize the approach.”

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Another researcher doing innovative work in the field of sustainable building is Sulapha Peethamparan, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Clarkson University. For the past three years, Dr. Peethamparan has been working to produce a more environmentally friendly concrete.

According to Dr. Peethamparan, the 12 billion tons of concrete produced worldwide each year require approximately 1.5 million tons of cement. Each ton of cement in turn yields approximately one ton of carbon dioxide from burning coal, mining limestone and chemical reactions.

“In the concrete industry we have a lot of push for more sustainable concrete, meaning a concrete which has low impact on the environment, low CO2 emissions,” Dr. Peethamparan said. “We are developing a lot of different kinds of concrete using different types of waste materials.”

One way to make a more sustainable concrete involves replacing some of the Portland cement with industrial byproducts: “fly ash,” or waste from coal-burning thermal plants, and blast-furnace slag from steel plants, for example. However, Dr. Peethamparan’s research centers on geopolymer and alkali-activated concretes, which are produced entirely from industrial byproducts and do not use any cement at all. By mixing a strong alkali solution such as sodium hydroxide or sodium silicate with these industrial byproducts, she is creating a stable, cement-free concrete that does not leach chemicals into water.

“You are cutting down on the CO2 emissions significantly, and you may end up with a better product, better concrete,” she said of the greener process. “It may last longer than a normal concrete.”

To aid her research, Dr. Peethamparan received a $410,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 2011 as well as a $30,000 grant from the Rochester-based New York State Pollution Prevention Institute last April. Although the cement-free concrete is nearly ready to begin trials, Dr. Peethamparan predicts that it may take several years before it’s accepted in the north country.

“People are not going to accept it immediately,” she said. “It may take at least five to 10 years to show them that this concrete is very good, show them how durable it is and how long lasting it is, that it is not going to cause any health damage, any catastrophic failures. You need to establish that kind of information first.”

Gabrielle Hovendon is a former Watertown Daily Times reporter and freelance writer. Contact her at ghovendon@gmail.com.