How a small business in Arizona is helping decarbonize concrete

Block-Lite is a small concrete manufacturer in an industrial corridor in Flagstaff, Arizona. The third-generation family business manufactures bricks and other masonry materials for retaining walls, walkways and landscaping projects. The company was already a local leader in sustainability — in 2020, it became the first manufacturer in Flagstaff to power its operations with onsite solar panels. But now he is doing something much more ambitious.

On Tuesday, Block-Lite announced a pioneering collaboration with climate tech startups Aircapture and CarbonBuilt to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hide it in concrete blocks. The companies estimate the project will reduce the carbon footprint of Block-Lite’s products by 70%, creating a model it hopes could reshape the industry.

Concrete creates a huge problem for the climate. It is one of the literal building blocks of society, and it has been increasingly carbon-intensive every year. Most of this carbon does not come from making concrete, but from producing its main ingredient, cement. Cement production is responsible for a part 10% of industrial carbon emissions in the USA

CarbonBuilt has developed a solution that solves the problem in two distinct ways. First, the company found a unique way to replace cement with a mix of inexpensive, locally sourced industrial waste. CEO Rahul Shendure told Grist they include common by-products from coal-fired power plants, steelmaking and chemical production that for the most part would otherwise go to landfills. The company’s second feat is how its equipment hardens this mud into concrete blocks – by hardening it with carbon dioxide. That’s where Aircapture comes in. The company will build one of its machines that will extract carbon dioxide from the ambient air directly at the Block-Lite site.

“Our technology is quite flexible in terms of CO2 supply source,” Shendure said. “What’s different about this particular project is that we’re sourcing carbon dioxide from direct air capture technology.”

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It’s an idea that a handful of other companies are pursuing. In February, a similar partnership between another direct air capture company called Heirloom and concrete startup CarbonCure demonstrated his process for the first time. This isn’t CarbonBuilt’s first project either – the company is retrofitting a concrete plant in Alabama called Blair Block. In this case, the CO2 will come from the combustion of biomass in a boiler.

The Flagstaff project is launched, thanks in part to a $150,000 grant from the Four Corners Carbon Coalition, a group of local governments across the Southwest that pool their resources to fund projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The coalition was born out of the realization that communities with ambitious goals to become carbon neutral will likely need to invest in such solutions, many of which are still in their infancy.

“If a local government tries to do it on their own, it’s going to be extremely expensive and time-consuming, and we don’t have the technical expertise,” Susie Strife, director of sustainability for Boulder County, Colorado, member founder of the coalition, said in an interview with Grist last year. “We’re trying to pool resources and create some sort of local government platform for carbon dioxide removal.”

In addition to this funding, Shendure said the company plans to sell carbon credits for the CO2 that Aircapture’s equipment extracts from the atmosphere, as well as for the carbon reductions resulting from using less cement. . “We have a letter of intent from a buyer and that is going to be critical for this project,” he said. “There are a lot of companies right now paying premium credit prices for emerging technologies so we get more of them in the real world.”

Block-Lite did not respond to Grist’s request, but in a Press release, the company suggested that the new concrete products would not be more expensive than its current offerings. “Too often, sustainable building materials require a trade-off between cost and performance, but what’s unique about this project is that there’s no ‘green premium,'” Block- Lite. “We are going to be able to produce bespoke ultra-low carbon blocks at price parity with traditional blocks, which should accelerate adoption and impact.”

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