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Carbon Sequestration in Cement Creates Significant Environmental Advances in New Construction

Carbon Sequestration in Cement Creates Significant Environmental Advances in New Construction

Cement floor texture, concrete floor texture use for background

By Nancy Novak

It’s not news that buildings use a lot of concrete. There are no substitutions for it, and the production of it is problematic for the environment, generating 7 percent of all global carbon emissions. What is new is technology for manufacturing concrete that not only lowers cement volume but captures and sequesters CO2.

As engineering and construction firms take the next step to deliver more environmentally responsible buildings, carbon capture in concrete has the potential to deliver meaningful impacts.    

Efforts to Reduce Carbon

For years, the construction industry has placed their focus on operational opportunities to reduce the carbon impact of commercial buildings. Strides have been made to reduce volatile organic compounds, creating safer environments for workers and occupants. There has been an increased awareness of transportation-related impacts on the environment and efforts have been made to source materials closer to construction sites. These have all been important steps to protect the environment.

From a construction standpoint, however, solutions to reduce the carbon intensity of new builds have been limited. Recycled steel and concrete fillers have driven some reduction in embodied carbon in new construction, but not made meaningful impacts.

Compass Data Centers, one of the nation’s leading data center construction companies, recently committed to using CarbonCure™ technology in the production of concrete for its new data centers, which rely heavily on concrete and are proliferating at a rapid pace. This unique additive not only reduces the quantity of cement needed in a mix, but also strengthens the mix while capturing carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere.

Using CarbonCure™ technology, concrete producers mineralize carbon waste and inject it into concrete. Injecting carbon in mineral form not only improves the compression strength of the concrete, but also reduces the volume of cement used in concrete. Most importantly, it permanently eliminates CO2 from the atmosphere, driving substantial positive change in the impact of concrete production on the environment.

Search for a Solution

Most climate change discussions focus on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation, and energy sectors. Tech hasn’t been a target of activists, but the industry is mindful of its impact and proactively searching for ways to do better.

It’s a well known fact that data centers are energy intensive. According to research firm IDC, the data center industry has the fastest growing carbon footprint within the IT sector. The number of data centers worldwide has grown from 500,000 in 2012 to more than 8 million today, and expansion will continue on that trajectory as more people work, learn, shop, and stream entertainment from home in the wake of COVID-19. A lot of that expansion will be new construction.

Data center operators are always on the lookout for more environmentally responsible options. Like other commercial buildings, most efforts have been centered on less energy intensive operations– servers and cooling systems with lower power requirements and/or sourcing renewable energy to reduce the carbon intensity of operations.

Given the extensive use of concrete in building data centers, from foundations and sidewalks to pre-cast walls and roofing, carbon capture in concrete represents a huge mitigation opportunity. In its quest to build better buildings, Compass Data Centers learned about CarbonCure™ and began due diligence on its effectiveness and the carbon offset potential for new projects.

CarbonCure™ Potential

International engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti conducted a multi-year study on embodied carbon. In it, Tomasetti recognizes that data centers and hospitals, mission critical structures, have the overall highest levels of embodied carbon of any asset category. In consultation with Thornton Tomasetti, Compass discovered how effective CarbonCure™ technology could be in reducing the carbon footprint of each of its new campuses. Building sizes vary, but estimates showed that using CarbonCure™ has the potential to reduce the CO2 footprint of each Compass campus by around 1,800 tons, equivalent to CO2 sequestered by 2,100 acres of forest or driving a car 4 million miles.

Having quantified the potential of CarbonCure™ as it relates to Compass Data Center projects, and with tested confidence in the integrity and application of the product for Compass’s model, the next step was to revisit Compass’s supply chain to ensure a healthy network of precast providers that would be able to deliver CarbonCure™-manufactured cement. With data centers under construction throughout the U.S. and a growing international presence, Compass needed assurance that there would be a sufficient network of suppliers. It turned out, CarbonCure™ manufacturers had more coverage than any other carbon-friendly products.

Compass sent a request for proposal to each of its existing precast providers with design specifications to gauge their readiness to work with the Carbon Cure™ technology. Several respondents were engaged, familiar with the product, and eager to support this new, better way to build. Ongoing partnership is important to Compass’ model and value to customers. Compass relies on partners who can support Compass’s strategic advantage with quality and speed-to-market.

Going Forward

Compass Data Center customers are thrilled to start their projects from a more positive carbon position. As the company seeks to continue eliminating carbon in new builds, Compass is now investigating opportunities to use aggregate with captured CO2 in place of natural limestone mined from quarries.

SE 2050 challenges structural engineers to take ownership and a more active role in reducing embodied carbon emissions in the built environment. Ultimately, the challenge is designed to prod engineers to eliminate carbon in new builds by 2050. Compass believes carbon capture in concrete is an important, if not the most important, way to achieve the goals set forth by SE 2050.

To help the engineering and construction industries further reduce negative impacts on the environment, Thornton Tomasetti created an embodied carbon measurement tool, called Beacon. This free tool is a Revit plug-in. It helps engineers measure embodied carbon in projects and find ways to optimize and reduce carbon output.

Compass is thrilled to begin constructing new centers with CarbonCure™-manufactured cement in 2020. It is an exciting new frontier and opportunity for the engineering and construction industry to deliver more environmentally responsible projects and meet goals for the future.

Nancy Novak, Compass Datacenters’ Chief Innovation Officer, has over 25 years of construction experience and has overseen the delivery of over $3.5 billion in projects during that time. Prior to joining Compass, Nancy was the National Vice President of Operations for Balfour Beatty Construction which she joined after serving in a variety of executive positions for Hensel Phelps Construction Company. Ms. Novak is a member of the iMason’s advisory council and is actively involved in a number of organizations dedicated to the advancement of woman in business including Above the Glass Ceiling (AGC) who are working with Fortune 500 companies to aid in the advancement of women in STEM, Women in Government Relations (WGE), Women Construction Owners and Executives (WCOE), The World Trade Center Initiative, Fortune Media’s Most Powerful Women and the National Women’s Party. Nancy is a frequent speaker on the topic and has participated in the White House Womens and Diversity in STEM forums. Nancy holds a degree in Construction Engineering and Management from San Diego State University.