Inside a high-tech cement laboratory

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A couple of weeks in the past, I discovered myself in a room the place fluorescent lights mirrored off the chrome steel tanks lining the partitions. The setup jogged my memory of an exceedingly high-tech craft brewery. 

I wasn’t at a cider tasting, however on a go to to Chic Methods, a Boston-based startup working to wash up one of many world’s hardest local weather challenges: cement. Right now, making cement includes a complete lot of fossil fuels, and this one materials accounts for about 8% of worldwide emissions. 

Nevertheless it may not must be that manner. So for the publication this week, come together with me to see what the startup is as much as, and the way its course of may change the way in which we construct.

Concrete progress

First issues first: let’s get definitions straight right here. Cement is mainly the glue that holds concrete collectively. A completed constructing, sidewalk, or sculpture is fabricated from concrete, which is about 10% cement by weight. 

I’ve written earlier than in regards to the challenges of cleansing up cement manufacturing—it’s best to take a look at that version of the publication in the event you missed it.

To sum it up briefly, cement is a local weather nightmare for 2 most important causes. 

One, the method used to make cement requires super-high temperatures (I’m speaking over 1,500 °C, or 2,700 °F), which as we speak mainly means you need to burn fossil fuels within the course of. Second, there are chemical reactions concerned in remodeling minerals into working cement, and people launch carbon dioxide. 

Chic’s reply is to make use of electrochemistry. The corporate’s cofounders, But-Ming Chiang and Leah Ellis, each made their mark within the battery world earlier than turning to constructing supplies. Whereas at MIT, the duo developed a set of chemical reactions powered by electrical energy that may remodel minerals into the cement we all know and love as we speak. They cofounded Chic Methods in 2020. 

What I used to be most inquisitive about throughout my go to was seeing how the corporate is taking lab outcomes and reworking them to work at a a lot bigger scale. 

A man in a white coat is seen eyeing factory equipment.



I began my day in a tree-shaded courtyard at Chic’s places of work, chatting with Ellis, who’s the CEO. She walked me by way of the development of the startup’s cement know-how, beginning within the lab at MIT the place she did her postdoctoral fellowship. 

Issues began out small: the primary time she and a labmate made cement, it was about the identical quantity as a single die. 

Years later, that small scale is sort of inconceivable whenever you look across the firm’s pilot facility. The ceilings really feel dozens of toes excessive, and I wouldn’t have the ability to get my arms across the tanks that line the room.

This facility began up in November 2022, remembers Mike Corbett, Chic’s head of engineering. The staff moved rapidly to construct it, going from design to execution in about 9 months. 

The corporate is doing one thing totally new by bringing electrochemistry to cement manufacturing. However they’ve been in a position to leverage know-how from different industries, like mining and chemical manufacturing, to search out tools that may work for what they’re attempting to do. “You may often beg and borrow from different industries to resolve comparable technical issues,” Corbett says.

The result’s half brewery, half mining operation, half cement manufacturing. 

The pilot line is a large improve from the early days, however as Ellis put it, within the grand scheme of the trade, it’s nonetheless “a cement plant for ants.” 

A concrete truck can maintain about 20 tons of concrete combine, which incorporates about two tons of cement. At a charge of 100 tons per yr, it will take Chic’s facility roughly every week to make sufficient cement for only one truck. 

The following step for the startup is to construct an illustration facility producing round 100 tons per day. “That’s the dimensions the place you’re not invisible to the cement world,” Ellis says. The present objective is to have that facility working in 2025. After that, there’s yet one more step: business scale, at about 1,000,000 tons a yr. 

The world has an enormous urge for food for cement, and Chic is working to scale its manufacturing to fulfill it. Whereas the fabric is mainly invisible to us as we speak, its local weather affect is large, and solely prone to develop. “All people makes use of and owns cement, however they don’t see it,” Ellis says. So maintain your eyes peeled, each for the cement round you and for extra on this matter from me. 

Associated studying 

For extra on the technical particulars of electrochemical cement making, together with one other route that includes injecting carbon dioxide into the fabric, take a look at this text from earlier this yr. 

Leah Ellis was on our record of 35 innovators underneath 35 in 2021. You may learn extra about her work  right here.

One other Boston-area startup needs to carry electrical energy to heavy trade, however its goal is steelmaking. Learn extra about Boston Steel right here.  

protein models in a hamburger bun with lettuce and tomato


One other factor

Lab-grown meat was simply accepted on the market within the US. In principle, that must be an enormous win for the local weather. 

However there are nonetheless many, many questions remaining about simply how a lot cultivated meat goes to have the ability to assist reduce emissions from our meals. For these new merchandise to be a local weather answer, corporations making them might want to scale up manufacturing and discover methods to keep away from costly, energy-intensive processes. 

You may dive into the main points of what we learn about lab-grown meat and local weather change in my newest story.

Maintaining with local weather

Tweaking microbes may assist enhance our well being. It may additionally assist the battle towards local weather change by taking goal on the ones that make methane inside cows and different livestock. (MIT Expertise Overview)

The worldwide common temperature hit a brand new excessive on Tuesday, beating a file that had been set … the day earlier than. It’s scorching on the market, y’all. (Bloomberg)

→ Excessive climate is taking a toll on the reliability of natural-gas crops within the US. (Bloomberg)

Sadly, we will’t resolve local weather change with rooftop photo voltaic alone. Panels on roofs may meet a couple of third of energy demand, on the absolute most. (Los Angeles Occasions)

Meet the startups vying to be the Tesla of warmth pumps, by making them engaging and handy. (Heatmap Information)

China is putting in wind and photo voltaic at an astonishing tempo. The nation is on monitor to hit its objectives for 2030 years forward of schedule. (The Guardian)

The smoke from wildfires in Canada goes to be a staple of life within the US for the foreseeable future. (Related Press)

In fact local weather change has a hand within the Sriracha scarcity. (USA Right now)

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