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    If we want low-carbon infrastructure, we need low-carbon materials

    Kirsty Sier

    Finally, the push to invest in low-carbon infrastructure is starting to heat up. Sustainable building and architecture is gaining traction every day, with more industry players adding eco-friendly achievements to their ‘About Us’ pages as they would an award. Eco-friendliness is being used by businesses of all scales as a competitive differentiator, and this can only be a good thing.

    Although we now talk at length about sustainable building and architecture, what we don’t talk about enough is sustainable building materials. But it makes sense that, if we want to make the broader transition to low-carbon infrastructure, we’re going to need to explore, innovate and ultimately use low-carbon materials.

    As understanding of our environmental impact grows, so do the number of companies expending effort to explore design and manufacturing practices whose footprint – like Benjamin Button’s – grows ever-smaller with time.

    Thankfully, this move towards low-carbon practice is being met by increasingly strict procurement criteria and requirements to provide ever-higher levels of communication regarding credible environmental information. Strict though they may be, there is no shortage of ways that these criteria can be met.

    Innovation in carbon reduction can happen at all stages of the design, manufacturing and procurement process; ideally, it would happen at all of these stages. From improving efficiencies of production through to designs that allow for the recycling and reuse of materials, innovation is required if we are to move beyond established, carbon-spewing traditions. Luckily, inspiration breeds inspiration; there are already many businesses innovating across all stages of the supply chain. It is to these business that we can begin to look in order to realise what’s possible.

    For instance, several companies who specialise in the production of asphalt have already proven that there’s not just the single, high-impact method of road-production, as history and established practice might otherwise lead us to believe.

    The standard-issue road material is typically made by bonding aggregates and bitumen by heating them to temperatures averaging between 180 and 190 degrees Celsius. The energy that is expended during this heating process is what accounts for the majority of asphalt’s environmental impact – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

    Lafarge Tarmac – a UK-based company that specialises in ‘sustainable construction solutions’ – has been exploring a method of asphalt production that doesn’t require such high temperatures. This exploration led to a successful trial of a Low Temperature Asphalt (LTA) material. Just as the name suggests, LTA is able to be mixed and worked at lower temperatures than standard asphalt, while maintaining the same level of effectiveness when it comes to bonding road materials.

    Unsurprisingly, considering lower temperatures mean lower levels of energy expenditure, LTA is effective in reducing energy costs of asphalt production. Lafarge have also found that LTA cuts carbon emissions by up to 39% per tonne when compared to standard asphalt production. The level of carbon emissions for this product, however, is ultimately dependent on the layer of application.

    FM Conway is another UK-based infrastructure services company who have been innovating in the realm of asphalt production. Their Enviro range of asphalt products uses a proportion of recycled aggregates instead of a 100% virgin product; an innovation they have dubbed Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement (RAP).

    With a similar aim to Lafarge of lowering carbon emissions, FM Conway has begun using life-cycle analysis to determine whether the use of virgin or recycled aggregates in their asphalt would be less carbon-intensive (because, as it turns out, the use of virgin products occasionally proves more sustainable). FM Conway have incorporated real-time comparison and analysis of materials into their production process. This allows them to gauge both the financial and environmental cost of each mixture, thereby producing the most energy-efficient result each time.

    As sustainable practice becomes one of the most important considerations for all industry sectors – from manufacturers to architects to designers to builders, no one is immune – it’s crucial that businesses break the hermetic seal that prevents collaboration and the cross-sector pollination of ideas.

    Instead of building an iron curtain between us and our competitors, we must learn to look to them for innovation in emissions-reducing practice. Only once we have established wider, transformative change can we begin to share in the benefits of greater efficiencies and lower carbon emissions.

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