Bill Gates and a Few Friends Invest in Smarter, Colder Concrete

Breakthrough Energy Ventures is what happens when billionaires get together and decide to invest in truly ambitious projects.

Autor*in Tristan Rayner, 10.11.18

Breakthrough Energy Ventures is what happens when billionaires get together and decide to invest in truly ambitious projects.

Set up by Bill Gates in 2015, (who using his network and history of philanthropy, managed to get the pointy end of the world’s richest people on his side) Breakthrough Energy Ventures is an investment fund run by a group of investors who have all pledged to help fund projects with positive climate impact. This includes the likes of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jack Ma, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Bloomberg.

The group focuses on new technologies that are proven to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. A condition for funding a project is that it will reduce emissions by at least 500 million metric tons a year. BEV focuses on five sectors: electricity, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and buildings, and projects must fall into one of these categories

Among the list of nine companies they have funded so far, projects include one that tackles the promised land of fusion power, and another that looks at solid-state batteries. These are technologies that haven’t yet proved viable but will be hugely disruptive if key breakthroughs can be realised.

One company tackling an age-old technology is a cement innovator. Cement is the binding material in concrete, and is produced by heating limestone to over 1,500 degrees C. This requires a huge amount of energy, and as limestone decomposes, it releases carbon dioxide (CO2). This process generates as much as seven per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2), although cement does reabsorb some small portion of the CO2 again over time. As a rule of thumb, a kilogram of cement releases a kilogram of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

But while the recipe for cement is unlikely to change, the amount we use is changing – and that’s what Bill Gates and his friends have decided to focus on.

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Canadian company CarbonCure secured an undisclosed investment from BEV, with its technology taking a different approach to final concrete production. CarbonCure injects liquefied carbon dioxide into fresh concrete during the mixing process, creating a compound that strengthens the concrete. This enables producers to use less cement, which has both the highest carbon cost and a high price.

The goal of the technology is to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment.

A study conducted by the company in partnership with the University of Toronto found that an optimum dose of carbon dioxide reduced the time for the concrete initial set by 40 per cent and increased the one and three-day compressive strengths by 14 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. The company has installed its technology in more than 100 concrete plants across the US and Canada. The CO2 injected into the production process is harvested from industrial processes that produce excess CO2, while the concrete captures it, making it a circular economy product.

“Every tonne of CO2 utilized in concrete production with the CarbonCure Technology results in a multiplier effect that saves an additional 28 tonnes of CO2 and over 3,100 USD in production efficiencies,” explains Rob Niven, Founder & CEO of CarbonCure.

CarbonCure provides case studies from building projects that have used their technology, including most recently a single retail office that saved 680 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Cement is too useful a product not to be used at all, but a number of other ecopreneurs, scientists, and makers are focusing on alternative, cement-free building materials too – such as the rubber from worn-out car and truck tyres, or fly ash from coal plants, called Greencake in this initiative in Gaza.

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