The building materials of the future

Concrete has a long history of over 2,000 years. But what will the concrete of the future look like, and how will it change the way we build? LafargeHolcim’s Head of Research and Development, Edelio Bermejo, answers.

  1. How will the “building materials of the future” go further than what is already available?

A: Cement and concrete have changed little for hundreds of years. However, we are now at the cusp of developing the next generation of building materials. There are two major drivers of the materials of the future: sustainability and differentiation. Low-carbon materials are top of our innovation agenda today, with 40% of our patented inventions relating to low-carbon solutions. In addition, we launched 99 new products worldwide in the first half of 2019, more than we launched in the entirety of 2018, which puts us on track to develop 300 new products per year in the coming years. This testifies to our ability to differentiate and develop products that offer solutions to local challenges. Hand-in-hand with partners throughout our ecosystem, we are working to change the way people build, and what they build with.

  1. What kind of differentiation are we talking about?

A: To differentiate, our focus is on providing tangible benefits from our products, that can’t be found anywhere else. In cement, the focus has always been on strength alone, but we want to go further. For example, we have recently launched blends that require less water, making them at once more sustainable and more economical. We aim for benefits that enhance productivity and therefore save money during construction, as well as benefits to the person living in the building, giving them more safety and comfort from their home.

  1. How will these materials of the future be more sustainable?

A: We need to lower our CO2 emissions extensively. In a nutshell, we will take four simple steps. First, clinker with less CO2 emissions – the raw component of cement. Second, use less clinker to make cement. Third, use less cement to make concrete. And finally, use less concrete in the building.

  1. How will innovation help to make these changes towards sustainability – in a way that allows society to keep pace with the growing demand for buildings and infrastructure?

A: The first step will be achieved through carbon capture. The technology is viable, and we have the first full-cycle carbon capture pilot installed at our cement plant in Richmond, Canada.

Reducing the clinker in our cement comes next. Today, we use materials like fly ash and slag to reduce the clinker in our cement. This is not a permanent solution though, and we are currently piloting the use of calcined clay as a precursor material. It requires much lower temperatures to produce it than clinker. And thanks to artificial intelligence, also known as machine learning, we can predict the strength of cement earlier during the manufacturing process and optimize the amount of clinker we need to get a perfect balance.

Focusing on high-performance materials and enhancing our cement for its intended purpose means less cement is needed in the final concrete mix.

  1. And using less concrete? Won’t this mean building fewer houses and infrastructure?

A: Using less concrete might sound counterintuitive for a company that sells concrete. We can continue to meet the demand and grow as urbanization continues apace if we take a smarter approach than simply making materials in ever-increasing quantities. New shapes of concrete and technologies such as 3D printing can cut the amount of material needed by up to half, if it is designed well. By focusing on higher-performing materials it is possible to use less material to achieve the same ends.

Interviewer: Nathan Wilmot

50% – Over 50% of our R&D efforts are in low carbon solutions

300 – A global network of over 300 researchers

40% –  40% of our patent portfolio consists of low carbon solutions

99 – 99 new products launched in the first half of 2019