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Study: Cement Absorbs Greenhouse Gas

Thursday, December 15, 2016

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For years, concrete—specifically the Portland cement that comprises much of the material—has gotten a bad rap in terms of carbon emissions. But new research indicates that even as the production of cement is creating carbon dioxide, the cement itself may eventually absorb nearly as much CO2 from the atmosphere.

The new study comes via the University of California, Irvine, where physicist Zhu Liu and Steven Davis, an associate professor of Earth system science, have been working with an international, multi-institution team of scientists to study carbon emissions and cement. The team’s main finding: Cement seems to actually act as a “carbon sink,” absorbing CO2 so it cannot contribute to the greenhouse effect.

Steven Davis /  UCI

Though its production does create carbon dioxide gas, cement seems to actually act as a “carbon sink,” absorbing CO2 so it cannot contribute to the greenhouse effect.

“It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true,” Davis said. “The cement poured around the world since 1930 has taken up a substantial portion of the CO2 released when it was initially produced.”

Taking in CO2

It happens through a process called carbonation: Cement materials like concrete and mortar actually absorb CO2 through their pores, removing the gas from the air and preventing it from trapping heat within Earth’s atmosphere.

The researchers aren’t saying a concrete cityscape is just as good as a forest for bringing down carbon in the atmosphere—cement production is still responsible for a net increase in CO2. But perhaps it’s not quite the heavy polluter some had previously thought.

Production and Absorption

According to the study, cement production released 38.2 gigatons of CO2 into Earth’s atmosphere during the period between 1930 and 2013, both from limestone conversion and from fossil fuels burned in the production process. But the researchers estimate that cement absorbed 4.5 gigatons of CO2 through carbonation during that same period.

Cement plant
© / tupungato

Cement production releases CO2 into the atmosphere both as a direct result of limestone conversion and from fossil fuels burned in the production process.

That’s nearly 12 percent of all CO2 produced during cement production—and, the study notes, it’s about 43 percent of the CO2 created by limestone conversion, which is a necessary step in cement production. The conclusion it all points to: It’s fossil fuels, not cement production itself, that contribute most heavily to CO2 emissions and the resulting climate effects.

“Cement has gotten a lot of attention for its sizable contribution to global climate change, but this research reinforces that the leading culprit continues to be fossil fuel burning,” Davis said.

International Project

The study, titled “Substantial Global Carbon Uptake by Cement Carbonation,” was published last month online by Nature Geoscience. In addition to Davis, it was authored by 18 other scientists representing a total of 17 institutions in China, Denmark, France, South Korea, Spain, the U.K. and the United States.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Carbon footprint; Cement; Coatings Technology; Colleges and Universities; concrete; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Emissions; Environmental Protection; Greenhouse gas; Latin America; North America; Research

Comment from Karl Kardel, (12/15/2016, 3:42 PM)

It goes to show the 'Warming Industry' tries to map with only fragments of the aggregate (so to speak) world climate. Also, should be of concern, how damaging is the amount of CO2 that is absorbed by placed concrete products. We are learning too that concrete production can lesson pollution, and alternate types of concrete offer help too. All in all the chasing around for 'bad actors' shows a shallow and self interested bunch of experts.

Comment from Robert Bullard, (12/17/2016, 12:20 PM)

Wait a minute. Carbonation lowers the pH of concrete, somewhat weakens hydration bonds and enhances corrosion of reinforcing steel. We do all kinds of things to reduce carbonation in the built product - coatings, sealers, etc., all of which frustrate the point made in the article...and with functional and durability good reason.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (1/2/2017, 10:00 AM)

Sure, as it degrades concrete absorbs some of the CO2 emitted when it is manufactured, but it's never going to be close to all of it because of the additional fuels burned to create the heat for the process. Additionally, for thick structures you are talking about a centuries-long process.

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