Clean concrete technology, made at McGill

CarbiCrete’s cement-free concrete blocks could help the construction industry get greener

Concrete blocks are a staple of the construction industry. But producing a key ingredient of those blocks – cement – generates lots of carbon-dioxide emissions. What if you could make concrete products in a way that soaks up CO2, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere?

That’s the idea behind CarbiCrete, a cleantech company founded by a team of McGill University graduates.

Innovation for the construction industry

Since its creation in 2016, the Montreal start-up has won a string of international honours for its breakthrough technology. And now it is launching an industrial-scale pilot project in partnership with Patio Drummond, a Drummondville, Que., maker of paving stones and other concrete products. Production at the Drummondville plant began on Jan. 29.

Last November, CarbiCrete was named as one of the 10 winners of the 2020 Construction Startup Competition. The competition, led by CEMEX Ventures in partnership with Ferrovial, Hilti, VINCI Group’s Leonard and NOVA by Saint-Gobain, is designed to identify and foster start-ups that can drive innovation in the construction industry.

Earlier in 2020, CarbiCrete was named to the Global Cleantech 100, a list compiled annually by San Francisco-based research firm Cleantech Group as “a guide to the most innovative and promising companies poised to impact the market and the future of global industries in the next five to ten years.” And in July, CarbiCrete won World Finance magazine’s 2020 Sustainability Award for the building technology sector.

In December, CarbiCrete secured $3.15 million in funding from the Québec government’s Technoclimat program, administered by the Quebec Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources. CarbiCrete’s technology “is perfectly aligned with our government’s vision of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy efficiency for a more prosperous Québec,” said Jonatan Julien, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, in announcing the Québec government funding.

Those funds and a $2.1 million grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada will be used to finance the demonstration project in Drummondville. In addition, the federal government’s Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions on Feb. 11 announced $500,000 in repayable financial support to CarbiCrete for the acquisition of state-of-the-art production and laboratory equipment.

The process of making cement is a major contributor to climate change. Each year, more than four billion tons of cement are produced, accounting for around 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions, according to a 2018 report by Chatham House, the London-based policy institute.

Carbon-negative footprint

CarbiCrete’s technology, first developed in a McGill Engineering lab, uses an industrial residue – the slag from steel factories – to replace cement as a binding ingredient in precast concrete products. The process also injects CO2 into the fresh concrete to provide strength, while permanently sequestering CO2 within the resulting products.

As a result, CarbiCrete’s blocks have a carbon-negative footprint. “Production of a conventional concrete block results in about 2 kilograms of CO2 emissions,” says Mehrdad Mahoutian, CarbiCrete’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer. “Each of our blocks actually stores about a kilogram of CO2.”

Mahoutian (PhD’14) worked on the technology as a PhD student with McGill engineering professor Yixin Shao, with whom he shared a 2015-2016 William and Rhea Seath Award in Engineering Innovation from the Faculty of Engineering’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship hub.

McGill research and innovation officer Mark Weber helped file for patents on the invention. He also helped Mahoutian connect with Chris Stern (BEng’94), a Montreal-based entrepreneur looking for promising green technologies. The two wound up teaming up to co-found CarbiCrete, with Stern as chief executive officer and Mahoutian as chief technology officer.

Pilot project

In late 2019, Harsco Corp., a Pennsylvania-based company that operates in more than 30 countries, announced a $3 million investment by its Environmental division in CarbiCrete.

“Harsco Environmental’s world-leading materials processing experience and commitment to clean technology make them an ideal partner as we work toward bringing a cost-effective, cement-free concrete solution to the global construction industry,” Stern says.

The Harsco investment coincided with a $2.1 million grant from the Government of Canada’s Sustainability Development Technology Canada Foundation.

CarbiCrete recently moved into a dedicated 10,000 square-foot facility, in Montreal’s Lachine borough, that houses its corporate headquarters, an R&D lab, and a limited production facility.

With the launch in January of the industrial-scale pilot project in Drummondville, CarbiCrete aims to build toward output of 25,000 concrete blocks per day, says Yuri Mytko (BA’99), CarbiCrete’s chief marketing officer.

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