I’ve been searching high and low for innovations that could help power a more energy-efficient and sustainable future. There’s a lot out there, some very much closer to being a concept than an actual product or process. Still, the sheer number of ideas being pursued is a somewhat hopeful sign in and of itself. We will need innovation.

There’s a lot of activity around improving the process for making concrete. A recent New York Times article indicated that concrete is the “most widely used construction material on the planet” and “If concrete were a country, it would rank third behind China and the United States.” Hmmm, there may be some double-counting in there.

A few concrete manufacturers have been making what they refer to as “low-emission concrete” or “Green Concrete.” CarbonCure, a company that injects liquid carbon into cement during its manufacture claims a 5 to 7 percent reduction in carbon emissions. Not a huge innovation but given the size of the problem, also not negligible.

Lafarge Holcim, a Swedish company, has apparently improved on that by making a concrete with 30 percent fewer carbon emissions and they’re working to increase that to an estimated 50 percent. The higher number will cost 5 percent more, which could be offset should governments ever get around to putting a cost on carbon emissions.

Right here in our backyard, though the Bay Area probably doesn’t think of itself that way, a marine geologist who studies corals and their ability to turn CO2 into calcium carbonate, started Blue Planet to mimic that process by turning CO2 into pebbles that can be substituted for gravel in the manufacturing of concrete.

Blue Planet harvests the CO2 directly from factory smokestacks, with the side benefit of reducing the need for gravel mining. The Foundation for Climate Restoration, of which Blue Planet is a partner, estimates that in addition to all the other measures required to curb emissions we need to remove a trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. The Foundation calculates that “getting 30,000 Blue Planet plants up and running by 2030 would create enough CO2 removal capacity to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Hmmm, I don’t know about that, but whatever the level of carbon removal, it wouldn’t hurt.

Moving along, let’s talk about another construction material: bricks. Two innovations were described in recent news. One was from the Trump administration. Steven Winberg, the assistant secretary of fossil energy at the Department of Energy, speaking at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, called time-out on dissing the future of coal.

“Many people think coal’s time is over. I don’t think that way. Rather than using the heating value of coal, we can use the carbon value of coal.” He stated that technological advances were imminent and coal could be useful in the manufacture of ceramic roof tiles, backyard decks and other products.

In support of this form of sequestering carbon that could be better sequestered if just left in the ground, his enthusiasm continued to, “Can you imagine building a house that is fire-proof with coal? That will be reality in the not-too-distant future.”

Neither he nor the article explained how coal might become non-combustible. Interestingly, and not directly related to the climate crisis, and this seems to be true, precious metals that are necessary in the manufacture of iPhones and other high-tech equipment can be extracted from coal, “in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way.” Who knew?

The other article about a potentially innovative role for bricks in moving us to a more sustainable future appeared in the journal Nature Communications. Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have developed “a proof-of-concept simple red construction brick imbued with the ability to store energy as well as power small devices.”

In other words, it can store electrical energy like a battery, and also, if connected to solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of a building built out of bricks, release that stored electricity to power appliances or whatever else requires electricity. This brick technology is not ready for prime time. As of now, it takes 60 of these bricks stacked together to power a 3-watt light bulb for an hour, though the bricks can be fully recharged in 15 minutes.

This discovery came out of a search for a substitute to lithium-ion batteries. Scientists must have so much fun. This lab was investigating iron-oxide (rust) and found when they immersed red clay flowerpots (iron oxide gives them their red color) in a series of gases, the result was a plastic coating that could conduct electricity. They moved from flowerpots to bricks and found that bricks absorbed the gases like a sponge and, like a sponge, there’s an enormous amount of surface area for the conductive plastic coating, thereby increasing the amount of energy it can store. They are now working to increase the brick’s limited energy density.

In their words, “If we are able to overcome that limitation, then I can really tell you that we are going to create jobs in America.”

This is a time for innovation. Go, science!

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to johnmotsmith@comcast.net.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on August 19, 2020 | PRINTED in the August 19, 2020 edition on page A3