• Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Q&A With Ana Aday: A Holistic Approach To Advancing Cement and Concrete Sustainability | News

Aday Leads Research and Development of Cement and Concrete Alternatives To Decarbonize
the Value Chain of Industrial Processes


When people think of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), it is often
solar, wind, and other clean energy generation technologies that come to mind. However,
Ana Aday, a materials science researcher in NREL’s Building Technologies and Science
Center, is taking on a whole new challenge: decarbonizing the cement and concrete
industry.

A woman's headshot.
Ana Aday

In late March, Aday presented the work that she and fellow NRELians have been tackling
during the American Concrete Institute’s Convention, one of the biggest cement and
concrete conferences for academia and research in the country. The following is an
interview with Aday.

How would you describe your research in low-carbon cement and concrete?

At NREL, we take a holistic approach to decarbonizing cement and concrete production
by considering and addressing the entire value chain, the circularity of industrial
processes, and how they are interconnected. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are prevalent
in all stages of production and not just one aspect of the ecosystem. The traditional
cement production process is a global contributor of GHGs, accounting for roughly
8% of global GHG emissions.

The breakdown of GHGs in cement production is roughly distributed between the extraction
of raw materials at about 3%, about 85% from the production of clinker and the heating
of the calciner, and about 12% from the downstream process (including cooling and
transportation logistics). Of the 85% of GHG emissions from the direct production
of cement, about 34% of CO2 emissions are from the use of fossil fuels to heat the kilns and the remaining 51%
come from the calcination of the raw feedstock materials. But even with the best energy
efficiency technologies, we need to target the materials process that represents 50%
of CO2 emissions to provide decarbonization solutions to the entire carbon dioxide challenge.

So as a materials scientist, it is my job to analyze the unique structure, process,
properties, and performance of mixing concrete and cement alternatives. We also are
considering carbon capture, utilization, and storage techniques to mineralize CO2 emitted into supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs), additive manufacturing
techniques (e.g., 3D printing), how we can reduce the waste and leftover materials
from processing, and the environmental impacts that are associated with raw material
extraction.

Can you elaborate on NREL’s unique and critical role in the development and deployment
of low-carbon cement and concrete alternatives?

NREL and national labs have a unique opportunity to face the cement and concrete decarbonization
challenges with a long-term vision by spending time on innovations that have a low
to mid technology readiness level. We understand the need for private industry to
maintain a return on their investments, which requires them to integrate technologies
that are market ready with limited to no risk.

We sit at the “in-between” where we can bridge the gap between basic science and novel
technologies that often fall in the “valley of death” and de-risk technologies making
them more appealing for commercialization. We approach our research with objectivity
and are not required to be competitive with our work, so we look at all potential
solutions and bring all private and public organizations’ priorities to the table.
Essentially, we wear a research and business hat simultaneously. So, wherever an organization
lives in the value chain, they can partner with NREL.

A woman on a stage speaking to an audience.
Aday shares NREL’s vision for deploying decarbonization solutions for the concrete
and cement industry. Photo by David Aleman, f-stop Photography LLC

What do you view as the largest challenge for low-carbon cement and concrete alternatives?

The largest challenge is the deployment of lab-tested technologies into the real world.
There are several steps that need to take place for companies to begin specifying
and using cement and concrete alternatives including procurement, the production of
materials, and the approval process from third-party verification (e.g., ASTM International).

At NREL, we can develop and have experimental control over many variables in the concrete,
such as optimal mixing and curing conditions, whereas the contractors placing concrete
in the field are subject to the environmental elements that day. For concrete production
facilities, their infrastructure may not be as up to date and they may also have challenges
obtaining alternative feedstocks, thereby making it difficult to replicate laboratory
results in real-world construction. And just because we can produce it in the lab
does not mean it will be a one-for-one replacement at the construction site. This
is because many factors affect the placement of concrete outdoors including weather
(i.e., wind, humidity, surface temperature, and air temperature).

Regarding the approval process, there are structural standards that must be met, requiring
material submission to third-party testing labs, which may take a few years to receive
the thumbs up. This is where NREL steps in. By evaluating the entire value chain,
we can identify those challenges and develop solutions to make real-world deployment
opportunities feasible.

What do you wish people understood about cement and concrete and efforts to decarbonize
this industry?

The largest hurdle for this industry is identifying and understanding the complexities
of the value chain and how they are interconnected. We are taking this head on by
hosting listening sessions and customer discovery interviews with public and private
organizations, which provides stakeholders an opportunity to voice their individual
concerns. For example, an organization at our most recent listening session explained
that they only have the infrastructure to house two types of SCM at their production
facility and had no additional space for new SCMs. So, learning about these constraints
helped us understand procurement challenges for smaller companies.

A woman standing next to a podium on stage speaking to an audience.
Ana Aday presents on concrete sustainability at the American Concrete Institute’s
Convention. Photo by David Aleman, f-stop Photography LLC

What were your goals when speaking and networking at the American Concrete Institute
convention?

Our end goal for presenting at the ACI convention and connecting with organizations
was to introduce NREL to the cement and concrete community. It is imperative that
our potential partners understand the capabilities we have at the lab to test and
demonstrate these technologies. We want to accelerate the discussion around novel
and alternative clean energy practices in this industry.

What were the takeaways you wanted audience members and potential partners to consider
from your keynote speech?

The main takeaway is that NREL is addressing a large range of decarbonization solutions
across the supply chain that are equitable for human health and economic development.
A top priority for clean energy development is to have community benefits that are
inclusive for all people and organizations while we transition away from traditional,
carbon-intensive processes. We do not want anyone to feel left behind. This industry
has supplied a large number of American jobs for decades, and our community members
must continue being employed. So, considering elements like workforce training while
we continue researching and developing cement and concrete alternatives is always
at the top of our minds.

What does partnering with NREL look like?

From a partner perspective, we handle a lot of logistics and project management, along
with development and de-risking the deployment of the technology. The reason we partner
with industry is so they can feel confident that they can successfully deploy the
technology and minimize hiccups. With this type of work, the partner can engage in
a hands-on fashion, and I have great commercial partners that contribute to materials
testing or manufacturing. A great sign has been when I reach out to potential partners,
current and new, I am often met with enthusiasm and willingness to partner. A specific
example is a company that I partnered with on a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA)
is now reaching out to me to partner on other FOAs.

We also encourage potential partners to visit our campus in Golden, Colorado. We enjoy
hosting organizations and individuals so that they can visualize and learn about the
breadth of work taking place at our lab that spans from analysis and modeling to in-the-field
testing of novel technologies.

What do you find most promising in the concrete and cement space?

What has been the most promising is our industry shifting their mindset about integrating
new materials and processes to decarbonize the production of cement and concrete.
In previous decades, this was a difficult conversation to broach, but clean energy
integration is far more accepted by private and public industry. There is a large volume of startups and different technologies that are addressing
all aspects of the value chain and could be used to decarbonize this industry.
The momentum we are seeing is promising for industrial transitions and transformation.

Learn more about Ana’s work and how you can collaborate with our experts.

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