By Matthew Chin

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has awarded a three-year, $1.2 million grant to the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science to investigate an emerging class of sustainable cement-alternative materials.

The production of ordinary portland cement (OPC), the “glue” in concrete, is a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, producing an estimated 7-10 percent of global CO2 emissions. This new project will focus on defining the composition, properties and behavior of inorganic polymers, an emerging class of binding materials that have little carbon impact but have the potential to be just as effective as OPC.

“Inorganic polymers are an important material solution for the construction industries to consider as a cost and environmental alternative to OPC in a carbon-sensitive economy,” said the project’s principal investigator Gaurav N. Sant, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

In addition to lowering CO2 emissions, inorganic polymers — also known as geopolymers —  have two other potential advantages over OPC. First, by replacing cement, they could reduce the energy needed for concrete production. Second, they could promote material reuse, as a promising precursor to inorganic polymer production are fly ashes. Fly ashes are an industrial by-product of combustion processes and are often disposed of in landfills.

Specifically, the researchers will look to:
1. Create innovative inorganic polymers with defined chemical precursors
2. Control the progress and evolution of chemical reactions in geopolymer synthesis, and
3. Develop simulation tools that can describe reaction and property evolution in these materials

The outcomes of the research will advance the use of inorganic polymer binders by the construction industry and produce strong and durable concretes at costs equivalent to or lower than OPC.
The Federal Highway Administration is interested in research and materials of this nature for their potential use in future highway infrastructure.

Other partners on this grant include the University of Texas at Austin; UC Santa Barbara; and Headwaters Resources Inc.

Main Image: Scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of an inorganic polymer system. Photo by K. Aughenbaugh