An innovative new research hub is helping create new-generation lower-carbon concretes and sustainable manufacturing methods.

Concrete manufacturing is unlikely to be most people’s first thought when they ponder society’s progress towards net zero carbon emissions.

But thanks to a new $6 million research partnership between UTS and Boral, the Centre for Sustainable Building is focusing on a sector that produces an estimated eight per cent of global carbon dioxide each year.

Head of Innovation Research and Development at Boral, Jason Chandler, says partnerships between academia and industry are common overseas, but have rarely been done well in Australia, where industry and academia often head in different directions.

“You’ve often got two sides of the same equation either coming up with the same thing, or coming up with completely different things and not knowing who’s right and who’s wrong,” he says.

Boral has its own well-established research department, but it is often commercially focused on solving an individual customer’s requirements, whereas in the new UTS-Boral Centre for Sustainable Building, “you’re not just solving problems for one customer, you’re solving problems for the whole industry”.

Jason says UTS contributes academic rigour, expertise and equipment that make it easier to conduct multiple experiments with slight tweaking and changes.

“The Centre is set up to pivot more easily – what if we do this, what if we do that?” he says.

Innovative collaboration

Photo of Professor Vute Sirivivatnanon
Professor Vute Sirivivatnanon receiving an honorary membership of Concrete Institute of Australia.

UTS Professor of Concrete Engineering, Vute Sirivivatnanon, is co-director of the UTS-Boral Centre for Sustainable Building, which was set up in 2019.

“It’s the first of its kind in Australia, where a large construction company has partnered with a university to establish a research centre. As the name implies, its role is to look at sustainability in the building industry. It’s more than just buildings, it’s infrastructure as well – bridges, roads and so forth,” he says.

UTS has three senior academics, two early-career academics and a number of research associates working in the Centre, and Boral has about a dozen people involved – all working side-by-side in state-of-the-art facilities at UTS Tech Lab in southern Sydney.

Much of the focus of the partnership so far has been on improving lower-carbon concretes. In the concrete industry, carbon dioxide is created through burning raw materials at very high temperatures for manufacturing. Carbon dioxide is also released when calcium carbonate (limestone) is converted into cement clinker during the cement-making process.

Over the past few decades, while ensuring that concrete is still strong and long-lasting, companies such as Boral have been steadily reducing the amount of Portland cement in concrete. They’re replacing it with industrial waste materials such as fly-ash and slag (by-products of coal-fired power stations and the steel industry, respectively).

However, as all industries move away from coal-fired power and carbon emissions, these materials are becoming scarcer and more expensive. The Centre is researching what could be the next generation of materials, including widely accessible clays, or perhaps by-products of the growing lithium industry.

A solid footing

“We are very proud of this Centre, and we have a very clear objective as to how we will move our industry to net zero,” Dr Vute says.

“Our main questions are, how can we use alternative energy for the production of cement, and the second part is associated with what we can do to reduce the amount of Portland cement by using alternative materials, while still meeting performance requirements, including workability, mechanical properties and service life.”

He says the Centre provides a “golden opportunity for academics to work with industry in R&D that will have great impact”.

Jason says the Centre’s independence and expertise also helps with Boral’s research in other ways. For example, when Boral has tried to determine what its customers require in terms of lower-carbon concrete, the answer usually comes back to lower prices.

But when the same question is asked via the Centre, they can more readily determine what the customers want in terms of performance.

When Jason began working in the industry 18 years ago, there were few requests or requirements for lower-carbon concrete. The situation has rapidly changed over the past 10 years, and Boral’s lower carbon Envisia concrete has been used in major architectural projects such as Punchbowl Mosque.

He feels the changes the Centre is helping introduce to the industry will help his children live in a better world. Boral itself recently released its 2050 net zero targets, and interim targets.

“As a cement manufacturer, we recognise we’re a contributor to the problem and we are working out solutions,” Jason says.