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Sugarcrete®- Innovative Low-carbon construction material made from sugarcane

A biomaterial construction block with an interlocking shape made from the sugarcane by-product bagasse.

The demand for sustainable construction material is continuously increasing as environmental awareness rises. Traditional materials often contribute significantly to carbon emissions and resource depletion. Therefore, sustainable alternatives made of by-products and waste materials are gaining popularity due to their lower environmental footprint.

Builders and developers are increasingly incorporating sustainable practices into their projects to meet stricter environmental regulations and to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. Additionally, advancements in technology and research are leading to the development of innovative materials with improved durability and energy efficiency. 

As governments and organizations worldwide implement more stringent building codes and certifications focused on sustainability, the construction industry is compelled to adopt greener alternatives.  As per MarkNtel Advisors report, the Global Sustainable Building Material Market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 11% during the forecast period, 2022-27. The demand has been escalating against the backdrop of deepening the emphasis of numerous regional & country-level governments to ensure a smooth path for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

This shift towards sustainable construction materials not only benefits the environment but also contributes to the creation of healthier and more energy-efficient buildings. In regard to the growing shift, Sugarcrete®, a low-carbon material developed by the University of East London has won a prestigious environmental award at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The environmental group, Green Cross UK, selected Sugarcrete® to be the winner of the circular economy section of its Climate Positive Awards. 

Alan Chandler, co-director of the institute, said he was proud of the recognition for Sugarcrete® and pointed out the project had other benefits too. He said, ‘We have not only created an innovative carbon positive construction material, but we use ‘open science’ principles to share knowledge and practice with sugar producing countries, learning from their contexts and supporting them to find ways to refine and deploy Sugarcrete® in a sustainable and ethical way’.

About the project 

The Sugarcrete®️ project, a collaboration between the University of East London’s MArch Architecture program and the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI), led by Senior Lecturer in Architecture Armor Gutierrez Rivas, SRI Co-Director Alan Chandler, and SRI Research Fellow Bamdad Ayati, with support from John Kerr, Vice President of Research & Technology at Tate & Lyle Sugars and Architecture studio Grimshaw, aims to provide practical construction solutions using bio-waste as a primary resource.

The project focuses on developing ultra-low carbon building components utilising sugarcane bio-waste, specifically bagasse. This innovative approach allows for the storage of biogenic carbon from rapidly growing plants in construction materials, serving as an effective strategy to delay carbon emissions. The collaboration brings together expertise from various fields to contribute to sustainable building practices and address environmental challenges.

Biomaterial construction block with an interlocking shape

About Sugarcrete®️

Sugarcrete, a biomaterial construction block with an interlocking shape made from the sugarcane by-product bagasse. The material was developed to be a low-cost and low-carbon reusable construction-material alternative to brick and concrete.  Created by mixing the sugarcane fibres left over after sugar sap extraction, known as bagasse, with bespoke sand-mineral binders,the material has the potential to be used and reused in new or existing structures, replacing both brick and concrete.

Developed over two years, testing of the material by UEL’s SRI showed that using Sugarcrete®️, when compared to concrete production, reduces curing time to one week (a process that takes up to 28 days), is four to five times lighter than concrete block, only uses 15 – 20 percent of its carbon footprint and provides substantially reduced costs.

Why was Sugarcane used?

Sugarcane was chosen as the primary resource for the construction material due to several compelling reasons. Sugarcane holds the distinction of being the world’s largest crop by production volume, making it an abundant and readily available raw material. The sheer scale of sugarcane cultivation provides an ample supply of bio-waste, particularly bagasse, which is generated during the processing of sugarcane to produce sugar.

The decision to utilize sugarcane aligns with the project’s goal of sustainable construction practices. The processing of sugarcane into sugar generates byproducts that offer a viable alternative to high energy-demanding construction systems such as concrete or brick. By repurposing sugarcane bio-waste, the project aims to reduce reliance on traditional construction materials known for their environmental impact. Moreover, sugarcane’s growth presents a highly efficient CO2-to-biomass conversion process, up to 50 times more efficient than forestry. 

Research and Development at UEL

The University of East London’s Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) plays a crucial role in the project’s research and development phase. Collaborating with the MArch Architecture program, experts delve into the scientific aspects of converting sugarcane waste into a viable construction material. This interdisciplinary collaboration combines architectural design with sustainable technology, ensuring that the resulting Sugarcrete® material meets both structural and environmental standards.

The University of East London’s (UEL) Master of Architecture and Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) with the support of Tate & Lyle Sugars has developed an innovative construction material.

Grimshaw’s Innovative Research into Interlocking Geometries

Grimshaw’s prior exploration of interlocking geometries laid the foundation for their groundbreaking project, This research involved using the form of building components to create self-supporting assemblies, providing a unique approach to construction methods. Building on their interlocking geometry research, Grimshaw successfully deployed  Sugarcrete ® ️as a demountable, reusable, and fire-resistant composite floor slab. This innovative application allows  Sugarcrete®️ to be easily applied, disassembled, or extended within both new and existing structures.

Sugarcrete®️ when integrated as a floor slab, adapts the design principles from John Abeille’s 1699 concept for dry assembly flat vaults. The system comprises interlocking components that efficiently transfer loads across the slab between blocks. These loads are restrained using post-tensioned perimeter ties, resulting in a reduction of up to 90 percent in the steel content of the slab.

Elena Shilova, architect at Grimshaw, highlighted the significance of reducing steel content in the  Sugarcrete®️ slab assembly. This reduction, combined with the use of sugar cane fibers of varying densities within a modular system, mitigates the potential risks of cracking observed in traditional concrete, especially in extreme situations. The modular design of  Sugarcrete®️ absorbs the effects of seismic shock, making it particularly valuable in earthquake-prone regions where sugarcane cultivation is prevalent.

The adaptability of  Sugarcrete®️ to Abeille’s design not only reduces the reliance on steel but also enhances the structural integrity of the floor slab. This is particularly crucial in earthquake-prone regions, where the material’s ability to absorb seismic shock aligns seamlessly with the characteristics vital for ensuring the safety and stability of structures.

Created by mixing the sugarcane fibres left over after sugar sap extraction, known as bagasse, the material has the potential to be used and re-used in new or existing structures.

The process of manufacturing Sugarcrete®️

Sugarcane Bio-Waste Sourcing

The initial step involves the strategic sourcing of sugarcane bio-waste, particularly bagasse, which is a fibrous byproduct derived from sugarcane processing. This bio-waste, often overlooked in traditional agricultural practices, becomes a pivotal resource for the project. Given the global dominance of sugarcane as the largest crop by production volume, the abundance of bagasse makes it a sustainable starting point for the creation of construction materials. The UEL team, in collaboration with Grimshaw, mixed bagasse with mineral binders to create Sugarcrete. This composition resulted in a material four times lighter and with 15 to 20 percent of the carbon footprint compared to traditional bricks, providing a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative.

Innovative Design: Interlocking Geometries

Architects at Grimshaw developed a polyhedral shape with tapered sides that was used to form the material into an interlocking block. The interlocking modules were arranged in alternating orientations and held together by post-tensioned perimeter ties to create the Sugarcrete Slab, a modular floor slab that can span up to three metres without the need for mortar. This unique shape allowed for the creation of interlocking blocks, enabling easy construction and disassembly. The design aimed to challenge misconceptions about waste-based materials by offering self-supporting structural applications.

Digital Modeling and Robotic Fabrication

The project leverages cutting-edge technology, employing advanced digital modeling techniques for the intricate design of the Sugarcrete® material. This approach ensures precision, efficiency, and customization tailored to specific construction applications. Simultaneously, robotic fabrication processes are actively utilized for the actual production of the material. The integration of robotics in the manufacturing process enhances accuracy and consistency, two critical factors in creating a reliable and standardized construction material. 

Prototyping Various Applications

Once the Sugarcrete® material is deemed structurally sound and meets industry standards, it is prototyped for various construction applications. These applications include insulation panels, lightweight blocks, load-bearing blockwork, and structural floor and roof slabs. The versatility of the material is explored through adapting it to different forms and structures. This prototyping phase allows for practical testing in simulated construction scenarios, ensuring that the Sugarcrete® material can be seamlessly integrated into a range of building components. The insights gained from these prototypes contribute to a better understanding of the material’s capabilities and potential applications in real-world construction projects.

Prototype Testing and Refinement:

Following the prototyping phase, the Sugarcrete® material, including the innovative Sugarcrete® Slab, undergoes extensive testing to validate its structural integrity, load-bearing capacity, and environmental impact. These tests aim to ensure that the material not only meets the standards set during development but also performs effectively in real-world conditions. Findings from the testing phase guide refinements and improvements to the material and its applications. This iterative process of testing and refinement is crucial to developing a construction material that is not only innovative but also reliable and capable of meeting the diverse demands of construction projects.

Tapered blocks interlock to form slabs

Testing to Industry Standards

To validate the material’s suitability for real-world construction applications, it undergoes rigorous testing at UEL’s SRI facilities. These tests adhere to established industry standards, ensuring that the Sugarcrete® material meets or exceeds benchmarks for fire resistance, compressive strength, thermal conductivity, and durability. This comprehensive testing phase is essential to guarantee the material’s safety, performance, and adherence to regulatory requirements. The results obtained from these tests inform any necessary adjustments or improvements, ensuring that the Sugarcrete® material is not only innovative but also reliable within the construction industry.

Global Application and Collaboration

The project extends its focus beyond the laboratory, aiming to identify suitable testing sites in sugar-producing regions of the Global South. Collaborating with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the project ensures that the Sugarcrete® Slab prototype is tested in diverse environments with different construction needs. This global perspective allows the project to tailor its outcomes to local contexts, acknowledging the importance of adapting the technology for various regions. The collaboration with NGOs emphasizes community involvement and ensures that the technology benefits the communities it seeks to impact. This phase of the project aligns with the broader goal of creating locally produced, affordable, and ultra-low carbon building solutions.

Environmental Benefits and Economic Impact

Prototype testing at UEL’s SRI laboratories showcases the environmental benefits of the Sugarcrete® Slab, including carbon emissions that are significantly lower than those associated with traditional concrete. The material’s reduced production costs and environmental advantages position it as a viable alternative to traditional construction materials. Additionally, the Sugarcrete® Slab minimizes curing time, is lighter than concrete, and offers cost savings compared to conventional concrete production. The potential economic impact is substantial, especially in sugar-producing communities in the Global South, where locally made construction solutions can replace imported, expensive, and environmentally poor-performing materials. The focus on creating affordable and environmentally friendly building materials aligns with the broader goal of improving living conditions in these regions.

Ongoing projects with Sugarcrete® 

  • School Demonstrator India: Building a school extension using Sugarcrete® collaborating with the local plantation communities and state government.
  • OTT Silvertown: Co-design workshops for a local community space using Sugarcrete® in Silvertown, London.
  • Net Zero Circular Solutions S.A.: Ongoing discussion on the development of Sugarcrete® in Costa Rica.

Conclusion

The emergence of sustainable construction materials is reshaping the landscape of the building industry, with a particular focus on innovative solutions like Sugarcrete®. The product not only addresses environmental concerns by significantly reducing carbon emissions and promoting a circular economy but also demonstrates versatility in diverse architectural applications. 

References- uel.ac.uk/sugarcrete, deezen.com, archdaily.com, grimshaw.global

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