UK, China to probe building materials that could help save the world

Chinese and British scientists have joined forces to probe concrete that can sense itself and eat pollution, and also glass that might regulate a building’s temperature better, saving huge amounts of energy.

Some of the research looks into the future, but some revisits techniques used in the past to build the Great Wall of China (pictured), for instance.

In December the UK announced it would give $4.5m (£3m) to six research projects, each a collaboration between British and Chinese academics.

Among other things they will explore:

  • intelligent coatings for windows to improve energy efficiency;
  • concrete that can conduct electricity and absorb airborne pollutants;
  • stronger magnesia-based cements for big infrastructure;
  • using industrial waste instead of natural raw materials for cement.

Nine universities in China and nine in the UK are participating.

For the windows, University College London (UCL) and Wuhan University of Technology will experiment with vanadium dioxide films and model their effect on energy savings in real buildings. Researchers say this could be a big win, as heating and cooling buildings can gobble up 30% or more of a country’s electricity.

Science knows no boundaries– UK science and universities minister Greg Clark

Concrete that can conduct electricity and eat pollutants (though not necessarily at the same time) is the holy grail for researchers from Aberdeen, Dundee, Wuhan and Chongqing universities. They will look into what novel additives can be thrown into the mix to create structures that can sense or heat themselves – good for icy roads – and absorb pollution through photocatalysis.

While these are on the more futuristic side, other researchers will be dusting off a rather old idea: magnesia-based cements. Magnesium was used in concrete for centuries before Portland cement conquered the world, and such cement can be found in the Great Wall of China and between the timbers of Medieval European buildings.

Greater strength and water resistance are among its advantages, so scientists from Cambridge, UCL, Nanjing Tech University and Chongqing will investigate its use in big dams, bases for offshore wind turbines, nuclear power stations and very deep oil wells. UK contractor Laing O’Rourke is taking part in this research as well. (Read more here.)

When he announced the funding, UK science and universities minister Greg Clark said that the world needs this research and that science "knows no boundaries".

"High quality science and innovation is central to addressing the challenge of meeting the demand for higher living standards from an increasing global population, with limited natural resources that we need to protect," he said.

Professor Philip Nelson, boss of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which made the research grant, said: "Developing advanced materials and improving sustainability in infrastructure will help both the UK and China address environmental, economic and resource challenges that face both countries and the rest of the world."

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