Scientists Hope to Win Global Competition With Concrete That Incorporates and Reduces Carbon Dioxide Emissions

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Scientists are racing to develop a concrete solution to the planet’s ever-growing greenhouse gas problem by actually trapping mineralized carbon dioxide in concrete. A UCLA research team hopes to win the $20 million Carbon XPrize with an innovation that aims to reduce some of the 37 billion tons of CO2 that are released around the globe each year, according to a 2018 estimate.

The team’s concrete wouldn’t absorb CO2 already in the atmosphere, but it would turn industrial emissions into carbonates and incorporate them into the cement, as well as CO2 emissions released during the production of the concrete itself.

The UCLA team is one of 10 that have made it to the final round of competition for the Carbon XPrize, a race to develop sustainable technology that could help reduce carbon emissions. Nearly 40 competitors from all over the world have been in a race for the past two years, and the winner will be announced this fall.

Even if UCLA falls short, team leader Gaurav Sant said its product, CO2Concrete, will be in limited use this year.

“What we’re trying to do is develop a material which has the potential to be able to completely remove that specific type of emission from the production of Portland cement,” said Sant, a UCLA professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Portland cement is the main ingredient of concrete and the main contributor to carbon dioxide emissions from the production of concrete around the world. In 2018, the U.S. used about 100,200 metric tons of cement, which is the powder used to make concrete. In Arizona, more than 3,600 cement industry workers contribute $3.4 billion to the state’s economy, according to the industry’s trade association. Portland cement, which consists of calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron and other ingredients, is produced at plants in Paulden, Clarkdale and Rillito.

The UCLA team’s ambition is to remove all CO2 emissions from concrete production. So far, it has reduced emissions by 75%.

“We want to be developing technologies that have the ability to change how we live in this world and how we produce things in this world,” Sant said.

CO2Concrete uses calcium hydroxide to create a type of cement that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions through the process of reabsorption. First, carbon that industrial plants release in flue gas is collected and converted to a solid, then mixed into the cement. Once concrete blocks have been formed, they reabsorb the carbon emissions produced by the concrete production.

Graphic courtesy of UCLA

CO2 emissions from cement account for about 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. produces 13% of the world’s total CO2 emissions, but concrete is to blame for roughly 1% of those emissions.

Sant and his team have worked to keep CO2Concrete in the same price range as Portland cement because of the conservative culture of the industry, which makes it difficult to sell a sustainable product if it’s more expensive.

“You aren’t really going to be able to sell a greener material if it’s more expensive,” Sant said, “and so we’ve been very focused on the idea of ensuring an equivalence of cost.”

Despite the seemingly obvious benefits of having a sustainable form of concrete, the product has not yet been tested on a larger scale. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine estimate that converting carbon could, at most, mitigate 15% of global emissions, according to a 2019 report.

Some experts question how realistic it is to expect success from innovations like those in the XPrize competition, considering the severity of the greenhouse gas problem.

Allen Wright is the executive director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University and has done research about reducing CO2 emissions. Although UCLA’s innovation shows promise in battling greenhouse gases, Wright thinks there’s a pressing need for bigger changes to curb carbon emissions across the Southwest.

“I think that we’re probably 20 years beyond the point where it’s absolutely critical that we be concerned about it,” he said. “We’re too late, in other words.”

From Wright’s perspective, CO2Concrete would not specifically change CO2 emissions within the Southwest. Because of how mixed the atmosphere is, any reduction in emissions locally would be “quickly diluted by the rest of the atmosphere being swirled around,” he said.

Awareness matters, but Wright also is concerned about the lack of policies that have been enacted to tackle this issue. Putting pressure on policymakers to “enable and encourage research and development into carbon management technologies” is what’s needed, he said, adding that it’s “long overdue.”

For 25 years, XPrize Foundation competitions have invited researchers from across the globe to create products to build a more sustainable world.

The 2004 XPrize winners were tasked with creating “a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship.” That team went on to license their technology to Richard Branson, who launched Virgin Galactic, one of the first companies to attempt to develop commercial space travel.

Marcius Extavour, the executive director of the Carbon XPrize, said XPrize chose carbon dioxide as this competition’s topic because of its contribution to the greenhouse effect and air pollution.

“Carbon dioxide is not the only gas and substance doing that, but it’s one of the ones we can control and it’s a crucial one,” Extavour said.

Competitions like the XPrize help to address areas of sustainability that may be under-researched, he said. The $20 million Carbon XPrize, which is funded by donors, allows the winning team to develop its product for the market.

“We thought by using an XPrize, (it) would be a way to really galvanize the whole community around the topic, attract some innovators, and hopefully achieve some really meaningful breakthroughs,” Extavour said.

Among the Carbon XPrize competitors, there have already been some real-world successes. Some of the products created are already available to be purchased, including watches made with carbon dioxide emissions.

“Carbon XPrize focused on CO2 conversion into materials because we wanted something that was a really audacious goal, something that was not getting enough attention and not being explored,” Extavour said. “It’s not the only solution we need but it’s one crucial one.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Bye-Bye Beaches: How Parts of SoCal’s Iconic Coast Could Disappear in Our Lifetime

LOS ANGELES – The stretch of coast from Santa Monica to Malibu is iconic and quintessentially Californian. It’s also ridiculously beautiful — and it’s clear, based on the latest science, it could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

As the planet warms, sea levels will continue to rise, threatening some of our most beloved stretches of coastline.

I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time on those beaches. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, I used to head over the hill in my friend’s baby blue VW bus, or my mom’s minivan, to surf Topanga or Malibu on my 9’8 Kennedy longboard. It was and still is an amazing escape from the traffic, heat and urban sprawl of the Valley.

I wanted to know exactly what climate change could mean for our beach-going experience through the end of the century, so I reached out to scientists and stakeholders to find out what they know.

Here are the challenges — and some solutions.

Seas Will Rise

First, some context.

A few feet of sea level rise might not sound very alarming, but every vertical foot could mean roughly 20 feet farther that the ocean encroaches inland (depending on a lot of factors, like the slope of the coastline), according to Patrick Barnard, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey.

The state’s 2018 sea level rise guidance laid out different scenarios based on how much we curb our greenhouse gas emissions.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

As a precaution, the report recommends that state officials anticipate 10 feet of rise when building crucial infrastructure along the coast.

Keep in mind some researchers think we’ve been underestimating just how bad things could get.

Beaches Will Disappear

According to a paper co-authored by Barnard, SoCal could lose between 31% – 67% of its beaches by 2100.

And areas like Malibu could be threatened in the coming decades.

“I mean these are very, very narrow beaches. They’re already having lots of issues, and just a bit of sea level rise and they’re going to be completely gone,” said Barnard, adding that Malibu could see a major loss of its beaches in the coming decades.


Homes are sandwiched between rising water and Pacific Coast Highway at Carbon Beach in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Our coastline is always changing, but as sea levels rise and intense storm surges (potentially) become more common, there’s conflict between natural processes and the parts of our coast we want to save.

“If we didn’t have anything built on the coast, the beaches in the coastal zone are incredibly dynamic and built to change. When sea level comes up, the beach moves in. When sea level goes out … the beach moves out with it,” said Kiki Patsch, who studies sediment dynamics at Cal State Channel Islands.

“But when sea level rises and we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is the beach and these are my homes,’ we have a problem,” she said.

When water encroaches and beaches have nowhere to go, because we decide to protect infrastructure and homes, we’re likely going to lose those beaches.


Santa Monica’s beaches are substantially wider than those in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Beaches like Santa Monica that have been widened with massive amounts of sediment could hold up with regular additions of sand, at least for a period of time.

Here’s a visualization of what rising sea levels could theoretically look like from the pier:

Caltrans just released its vulnerability assessments for our region, and they’re particularly bleak for our coast. There’s not much area between the ocean and the hills in many spots. Really, much of it’s just homes and critical infrastructure, like PCH. Which means that in some places we’re going to have to decide between one or the other.

“There can be situations where if we’re using shoreline protection to protect private residential development, that might be coming at the expense of a public beach area. And that’s going to be a huge environmental justice issue,” said Madeline Cavaleri, statewide planning manager for the California Coastal Commission. “We don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Las Tunas Beach, and the homes along the coast will see signifcant sea level rise over time because of the effects of climate change. Photographed on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

Surfing Could Take a (Duck) Dive

Surf spots are complicated.

I talked to Dan Reineman, a professor at Cal State Channel Islands who’s studied the impact of sea level rise on waves.

He said that at three feet, Malibu’s waves could get mushy. Surfers already experience that at high tide. With sea level rise it would be like it’s high tide all the time.

That said, it’s more complicated than just plunking down additional water on top of a break. How we manage our coasts and sediment flow will all impact what we experience on shore.

Scenes from a Monday morning at Malibu Surfrider Beach on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

“Whether you are armoring the sea cliffs or damming the rivers, that’ll have ramifications all of the way down the coast, because that is where the sand is coming from,” said Patsch.

That could mean that if we decide to stick sea walls and big piles of rocks up and down our coast to protect what’s there, surf spots could suffer, too.

That could, “pull the sand offshore and downshore, so it’ll get deeper offshore. Waves break because they start to interact with the bottom, so when it’s deeper you lose your surf break,” she said.

Derek Grimes, a Ph.D. student in physical oceanography at Scripps, noted that while the transport of sediment could negatively impact Malibu’s beaches, we don’t know how it could impact other breaks up and down the coast. It’s possible that new, sought-after spots will pop up.

Grimes told me he’s seen that happen off the coast of North Carolina when the bottom of channels are dredged for ships.

What We Do Matters

The good news is that everything we love about our coast is not going to disappear overnight. And we’ll have the opportunity to decide how we want to manage things going forward.

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For instance:

We can continue to dump sand and “nourish” beaches, though sand is an expensive and finite resource that can be wiped away easily by storms.

Places like Santa Monica and Cardiff Beach are experimenting with living dunes.

We can move homes and Highway 1 – and maybe even turn the latter into, say, hiking areas, like they did in Pacifica.

And some people want to install armoring up and down our entire coast, which could run into big problems with California law. Some homeowners in places like Broad Beach in Malibu figured out a workaround and did it on their own.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Battle to Stop Strip Mining in the Colorado River Basin

DENVER – A massive oil shale project is being planned on the border between Colorado and Utah that would take a lot of water out of the Colorado River Basin. The proposal by a European company, was authorized to proceed by the federal government; however, it may now find itself between a rock and a hard place because of a lawsuit recently filed by eight environmental organizations.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s oil shale reserves are in the Green River Formation, where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming meet, according to the website for Enefit, an energy company. Enefit is a subsidiary of a state-owned company located in the Baltic Sea country of Estonia, and it wants to strip mine about 27,000 of its acres in Utah to access the oil in the rock that’s at the surface, or just below. The rock would be heated to high temperatures to release crude oil, which would then be ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The mine would be located in a remote and rugged part of Utah about 40 miles from of Dinosaur National Monument in the Uintah Basin. It would be the first of its kind in the U.S. However, on May 16, eight different environmental groups represented by attorneys at Earthjustice banded together and sued the federal government to stop it.

Michael Toll, an attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust, one of the groups suing, said that the Bureau of Land Management did a completely inadequate analysis of the massive impacts of the planned oil shale development.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity joined with the Grand Canyon Trust and five other conservation groups claiming that, in issuing its permit, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not fully analyze issues like the impacts on wildlife and particularly water depletions from the Green River, an important tributary in the already stressed Colorado River Basin. Instead, the agencies looked only at the limited effects of a 14-mile water pipeline—not the whole operation.

Toll said that it’s difficult to identify the most significant impact of the proposed operation. He said that it’s a unique project with several impacts that are so egregious it is hard to pick just one. The project’s water consumption stands out because the region is so arid and, obviously, all through the West water is such a precious commodity. The mine would take about 11,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Green River. Toll said he thinks the company wants to take the water from the Green because that amount is oftentimes more than the entire flow of the nearby White River, another tributary in the basin. In a statement, Earthjustice said that depletions from the Green would harm critical habitat for endangered fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker.

In addition to the effects on water and wildlife, the environmental groups say the government needs to consider the enormous amounts of carbon emissions from burning the more than 500 million barrels of oil produced from the mining. A release by the Grand Canyon Trust says that oil shale is one of world’s most carbon-polluting fuels, with lifecycle carbon emissions up to 75 percent higher than those of conventional fuels.

And, there is the problem of the region’s air quality. The process of baking the rock to get the oil will emit huge amounts of ozone precursors, according to Earthjustice. Toll said that the Uintah Basin, where the mining operations could be located, was recently designated as out-of-attainment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standards. He said there are many days when the air in the basin is unsafe to breathe, and it would be dramatically degraded by the mining.

In addition, the sheer size of the project will have huge impacts. According to the Grand Canyon Trust, Enefit is proposing to dig out more that 28 million tons of oil shale per year for 30 years or more. Rains would potentially cause salts and other pollutants to infiltrate into ground water and nearby surface waters, affecting various species. The amount of ground disturbance from the mine itself is another significant impact, according to Toll.

The plaintiffs in the case filed in Federal District Court in Salt Lake City want the court to order the Trump administration to do a comprehensive analysis of all the impacts for the proposed operation, instead of only considering a small feature of the project—a utility corridor including a water pipeline.

Enefit responded by email to a request for comment from H2O Radio. Ryan Clerico, the CEO of Enefit American Oil, said that the company is still conducting engineering and permitting in advance of commencing commercial operations. He also said that the government’s approval is only about a corridor for utilities and not for the project itself, which would be done by other state and federal agencies.

For now, the environmental groups have not asked the court to stop the project because the company has not started to dig up any ground, but if they get wind of that happening they will ask the court to halt it.

This story was first published by on May 22, 2019. Read the original report here.

Arizona Scientists Aim to ‘Scrub’ Greenhouse Gas from the Air

TEMPE – It looks like a carpet and acts like a sponge, but it’s actually a key innovation aimed at curbing rising carbon dioxide levels in the air.

Allen Wright directs the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University and has spent more than 15 years researching ways to “scrub” the dangerous greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

“Most of the scientific community believe that removing the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is going to be a necessary component of the strategies that we will use to deal with this rising CO₂ level in the environment,” Wright said, standing in his lab and illuminated in a fuchsia glow.

“Those early days, nobody knew anything. Most people thought it couldn’t be done, or it would never be done or there was no way to do it.”

Wright accepted the challenge of collecting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, in 2003, started Global Research Technology in Tucson. He joined the ASU center in 2014.

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He and his team have been working on a material that captures CO₂ from the atmosphere in hopes of one day countering the warming effects of greenhouse gases on a larger scale. But they’re a long way from scaling up to commercial applications, which are likely to be costly.

“As it gives off water vapor, it soaks up CO₂,” Wright said about his technology, which looks a lot like shag carpet but actually is a porous plastic infused with an anionic resin. As the material dries, it attracts carbon dioxide from the air. When it gets wet, the gas is released back into the atmosphere.

But capturing the gas is just part of the solution. Wright said an everyday way to collect the gas for sequestration and store it as a gas, liquid or solid is needed. Some sequestration occurs naturally, including in forests and oceans, but what happens when there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere for nature to handle?

“Unless you can get your hands on it (carbon dioxide), you can’t do anything,” he said.

Carbon dioxide made up 81 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions from human activities in 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Greenhouse gases trap heat and raise atmospheric temperatures. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the past four years have been the hottest on record.

Allen Wright has been working with a team at Arizona State University to develop a material that captures carbon dioxide. (Photo by Lillian Donahue / Cronkite News)

Last year, national carbon dioxide levels increased 3.4 percent, the second largest annual gain since 1996, according to preliminary data released by Rhodium, a New York research group.
The report noted an increased demand for air travel and diesel fuel as the leading causes.

“The transportation sector retained its title as the largest source of CO₂ emissions in the U.S. for the third year running,” the report said.

Everyday commuters also play a role in heightened greenhouse-gas emissions.

Wright used a 1-pound bag of sand to demonstrate how much carbon dioxide one car puts into the atmosphere with every mile on the road.

“If a car gets 20 miles a gallon, that’s the weight of the carbon dioxide that you put in the air every mile that you drive,” Wright said. “I live 18 pounds from here.”

– Video by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News

Annual data by the Arizona Department of Transportation show vehicle registrations in the state, including total commercial and private vehicles, increased from 7.9 million to 8.5 million from 2016 to 2018.

Rhodium said its researchers don’t expect CO₂ levels to increase as much this year mainly because of continued closures of coal-powered energy plants and a slower economic year.

Despite this, Wright said continuously paying attention to CO₂ levels and pushing toward innovative ways to deal with emissions will help secure a safer, and greener future.

He and his team at ASU hope to make CO₂ capture devices more readily available. However, that dream will take more time and money to get the technology ready for large-scale use. Wright estimated the total costs of research and construction of the first large commercial prototype would have a $20 million price tag.

“We pay companies to come and haul our garbage off to the dump. We pay taxes to have infrastructure in cities that take care of sewage and waste and all this stuff,” he said. “We haven’t done anything with CO₂ yet, so that’s what we need to do.”

California slashes carbon emissions below 1990 levels, but hardest work lies ahead

Here’s some good news about climate change, for a change: The California Air Resources Board says carbon emissions have fallen by 12 million metric tons. That means California as a state has met its goal for cutting emissions four years early.

People were pretty excited:

California’s carbon-dioxide emissions fell to 429 million metric tons in 2016. There’s a two-year lag in data reporting, which is why it’s just coming out now. That means Californians are emitting less than the state did in 1990.

And that matters, because 1990 was the target goal to hit by 2020.

And how did the state pull this off?

Mostly by using cleaner electricity. Switching away from fossil fuels, which emit a lot of carbon dioxide, to wind, hydro and solar, which don’t emit any.

This was easier because in 2016, California had a lot of hydro power. Remember that was the winter with the record-breaking rainfall and huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. All that hydropower meant the state didn’t have to run natural-gas fired power plants as much.

Why is it important that emissions fell so much?

It shows that California’s climate policies are working and not destroying the economy.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – who signed California’s first-ever climate bill in 2006 – tweeted that California’s economy is growing, unemployment is very low and that “should send a message to politicians all over the country: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just copy us.”

It’s also a sign that the state’s cap-and-trade program is working well to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The program forced big polluters, such as power plants and refineries, to buy permits to offset their carbon emissions. Before, polluters could pollute without penalty.

What’s the downside?

The downside is that emissions from cars and trucks are increasing; they’re up 2 percent over the past year. Part of that is that we’re driving more miles and driving bigger vehicles, particularly SUVs and pickups.

California’s carbon-dioxide emissions in 2016. (Graphic: California Air Resources Board (CARB) .

So today, a much larger percentage of total carbon emissions are from cars — 41 percent — than from electricity, which is 16 percent.

Why is that a problem?

That’s a problem because it’s way, way harder to clean up cars and trucks than it is to clean up power plants.

Think about it: You can generate electricity in a lot of different ways, including solar, wind, natural gas and coal. So cleaning up electricity is just a matter of switching fuels.

But with cars and trucks, gasoline remains the dominant fuel by far. Of the 35 million cars in California, only 180,000 are electric. That number is growing, but electric cars still aren’t as practical or as affordable for most people as a gas-powered car.

Also just practically speaking: It’s a lot harder to change the behavior of 35 million car-owners than the operators of the 1,000 or so power plants in California.

What can be done about emissions from transportation?

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to get 5 million electric cars on the road by 2030.

There are already things in place to help make the cars cheaper, such as tax credits and rebates. So now the push is going to be toward building more places for people to charge them.

There are 14,000 public chargers in California, a number Brown wants to increase to 250,000. He thinks that’ll also help make electric cars more visible so people see them around and think, “Hey, look at that electric car! Maybe I’ll buy one.”

The 2020 goals have been met – what’s next?

It only gets harder from here. The new goal, set in September 2016, is to slash our carbon-dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which is way more ambitious than the target that was just met.

The new goal means Californians are going to have to get serious about cutting emissions from transportation and other areas that haven’t made much progress yet and/or are more politically difficult. A big test will be agriculture — cow burps, flatulence and manure greatly contribute to climate change.

Then there’s phasing out natural gas use for heating and cooking. And making houses way more energy efficient. And on and on.

In a recent tweet, Colin Murphy, the transportation policy manager at NextGen Policy Center, said the air-resources board’s July 12 announcement “is legitimately cause for (brief) celebration.”

“I’ll pause a moment to let you bask in the warm glow. O.k. that’s enough of that. Hope you enjoyed the basking, we’ve got work to do.”