Look who’s backing low-carbon alternatives to portland cement

The European parent companies of two global admixture producers announced equity stakes in ventures aiming to partially or fully displace portland cement in concrete. Both upstarts offer investors claim of proactive measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by lowering demand for a product of carbon-intensive processes.

Sika AG is backing the developer of a power plant boiler treatment technology raising the aggregate-binding capacity of fly ash above that of the normal coal-combustion cycle. Ash Improvement Technologies reveals the process and ASTM C 109 test results on treated versus untreated ash specimens in a report this month (page 20). AIT officials recognize the leverage Sika brings to their North American and overseas market development. They also appear to recognize their process as but one part of a strategy for helping the industry reduce CO² emissions attached to concrete and cement.

Touting a more grandiose vision is a venture in which a distant, Germany-based sister business of BASF Construction Chemicals has invested. BASF Venture Capital contributed $5 million to a $27 million, early-February financing round for Solidia Technologies Inc. The Piscataway, N.J., company cites an aggregate-binding agent milled at lower temperatures than portland cement, and a rapid precasting process using CO² as a reactant. The technology enables sustainable production of a new generation of building and construction materials, with “better mechanical properties than traditional concrete and show[ing] no shrinkage, high compressive strength and low permeability,” says BASF Venture Capital Principal Dr. Pulakesh Mukherjee.

Solidia chose the 2011 Greenbuild in Toronto for its commercial launch, pointing to building panel, paver, tile and countertop applications. Apparently missing from the rollout were details about the chemical composition of an aggregate binder developers insinuate could replace portland cement, plus baseline engineering properties—best illustrated with hard numbers and ASTM test method references—of the binder or concrete specimens.

Solidia officials did note how their concrete-like innovation is based on a process with which mixes’ morphology and chemistry can be controlled to engineer materials exhibiting “unique properties and exceptional application performance.” Dubbed Low Temperature Solidification—or a densification of inorganic materials—the process was developed by Rutgers University’s Riman Research Group. Using CO² as a reactant, thus sequestering a greenhouse gas during product fabrication, Solidia claims “a new pathway to carbon negative building and construction materials.” Augmenting that is a development partnership with stone product machinery specialist Simec S.p.A. of Italy.

In addition to BASF Venture Capital, Solidia Technologies backers include Silicon Valley venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, an early investor in AOL, Amazon and Google; and, BP Ventures, a unit of the U.K. energy giant. From product information and market ambitions provided so far, Solidia Technologies looks like a business that might commercialize an alternative to portland cement concrete—however minimal the ultimate CO² emissions reduction might be when measured on the life cycle criteria rapidly taking hold in green-building practice. It might prove a good target for lead stakeholder Kleiner Perkins, whose investment acumen is above question, and BP Ventures, which seems like it could afford gestures supporting a greener planet.

But does a business under the far-flung, $100 billion-plus umbrella of Germany’s BASF GmbH need to invest in an upstart parlaying a reduced-carbon alternative to conventional concrete? If BASF executives want to see proven carbon footprint reduction in construction products and structures, they should review the long track record their Admixture Systems business and Master Builders brand have in optimizing cement in mix designs and imparting long service life in high-quality concrete.