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Aecon, Concordia partner to decarbonize concrete

Construction giant, Quebec University launch two initiatives to reduce carbon in key building material

Prabh K. Banga, vice-president, sustainability at Aecon. (Courtesy Aecon)
Prabh K. Banga, vice-president, sustainability at Aecon. (Courtesy Aecon)

Aecon Group Inc. (ARE-T) is partnering with Concordia University as part of a dedicated effort to decarbonize the construction process through the research and development of low-carbon concrete. 

Under the terms of a three-year memorandum of understanding, Aecon will fund two initial pilot projects, both of which will produce new forms of concrete by using alternative materials as a substitute for cement, a primary component of concrete. 

One of the main goals of the research to be carried out by Concordia scientists involves fundamentally altering the composition of concrete by pioneering the use of low-carbon substitute materials, and correspondingly lowering the amount of energy required to produce the cement which typically comprises 10 to 15 per cent of concrete by volume.

This initiative signals that Aecon, a North American construction and infrastructure development company based in Toronto, is looking toward advances in technology to further reduce the carbon intensity of its activities.

"Concrete is an essential construction material, and this research partnership builds on a mutual commitment to harness innovative technologies in the construction industry to help accelerate the energy transition and advance sustainable construction," Prabh K. Banga, vice-president, sustainability at Aecon, said in a release.

Decarbonizing the construction sector

The launch of these pilot programs may ultimately yield significant progress in the construction industry, notorious as one of the world's most polluting industrial sectors that falls in the "hard-to-abate" category. 

According to a September 2023 United Nations Environment Programme study, the "buildings and construction sector is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for a staggering 37 per cent of global emissions."

Current methods of producing cement, steel and aluminum, as well as the materials themselves, leave a massive carbon footprint, and concrete alone accounts for eight per cent of global carbon emissions. 

This is why Aecon regards its research collaboration with Concordia as an urgent theme of its overall sustainability program. Last year, the construction giant released its fourth annual Sustainability Report that highlighted Aecon's "commitment to sustainability in what we build and how we build it, as we continue moving forward with a strategic focus on decarbonizing energy systems in support of a net-zero future," Jean-Louis Servranckx, Aecon's president and chief executive officer, said.

Two pilot projects will lead the way 

This year Aecon will provide funding and facilities for two major pilot projects at its Training and Innovation Centre in Holland Landing, Ont., where a team of Concordia researchers will be testing new ways of producing low-carbon concrete.

The first, Decarbonizing the Concrete Jungle, involves the production of three low-carbon concrete slabs by operationalizing new low-carbon materials that have the potential of replacing traditional cement. 

This project will also be applying "circular economy principles" by leveraging waste materials from other Aecon projects.

The second project, Eco-Architecture Decarbonized 3D Printed Concrete Buildings, pilots the manufacture of 3D-printed low-carbon concrete columns, which will also be produced with the use of alternative materials. 

By applying 3D concrete printing technologies to concrete, this project is seeking to provide the technological basis for what Aecon describes as the pathway toward "a new generation of energy-efficient, sustainable, and resilient buildings."

"Testing real-life examples of low-carbon construction materials will provide a great opportunity for shared knowledge and access to resources that may not have been available to us before," Banga said.

The ability to engage in real world testing 

Aecon's decision to collaborate with Concordia is further testimony to the reputation for excellence that the Montreal university's engineering department has acquired over the course of many decades. 

In recognition of its standing, in June of last year the Government of Canada awarded Concordia a $123 million Canada First Research Excellence Fund grant that supports its Electrifying Society: Towards Decarbonized Resilient Communities initiative.

In a similar vein, Aecon is now providing Concordia researchers the means and opportunity to venture outside the lab and test low-carbon concrete solutions in the field.

"We're really excited about this partnership because it allows for the research that's being done at Concordia to be proven in real world situations on real world construction sites," Banga said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada. "One of the purposes of this kind of partnership is to provide that platform for them to test out their new technologies."

Under Servranckx, Aecon has achieved a 20 per cent reduction in its carbon footprint since 2020, the year he was appointed head of the company. It has an interim target of a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and net-zero by 2050. 

The company intends to upgrade its sustainability capabilities in three key areas – climate change adaption, pathways to net-zero and sustainable construction – while providing comprehensive project lifecycle management support geared toward helping clients "navigate the complexities" of the decarbonization and energy transition process.

Wide spectrum of decarbonization initiatives

Founded in 1877 in Hamilton, Aecon has played a central role in building some of the most widely-known infrastructure projects in Canada, including the CN Tower, the Vancouver Sky Train and Montreal-Trudeau International Airport. 

"Although we're traditionally known for civil works projects or work on roads, bridges, and highways, over the years we have invested heavily in projects related to the energy transition and currently over 60 per cent of our revenue is tied to sustainability-related and infrastructure projects," Banga said.

One prominent example is Aecon's massive Oneida battery storage project, the largest of its kind in Canada, which is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.1 million tonnes per year.

Aecon is not only training its gaze on sustainable construction projects but is also accelerating efforts to electrify its construction activities that include transitioning to hydrogen-powered heavy trucks and other equipment.

"As a company we are pivoting more towards projects to benefit climate change support, climate change adaptation and mitigation, as well as a transition to net-zero energy systems, all in support of a net-zero energy future," Banga said.

"We're focused on decarbonizing our own operations in the future. You can imagine how a typical construction site operates with diesel generators, diesel equipment, etc. 

"We're in the process of transitioning to solar-powered generators and to large-scale electric construction equipment powered by green hydrogen. Ultimately, we envision a net-zero control construction site and a point where our operations are completely net-zero."

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