A downtown parking lot owned by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities soon will be the testing ground for a revolutionary form of concrete infused with wood nanoparticles.
The Greenville-based Endowment, which is the nation’s largest public charity dedicated solely to keeping forests as forests and advancing family-wage jobs in forest-rich rural communities, has partnered with USDA Forest Service, Oregon State University and Purdue University to test the performance of concrete through the addition of cellulosic nanomaterials (CN) produced from wood.
The Endowment’s 100-by-40 foot parking lot on East North Street is one of three sites nationwide being used in the test, said Carlton Owen, the group’s president and CEO. The Greenville site is the biggest.
“We are excited to be spotlighting Greenville in this project,” Owen said. “This test aims to show what the future of sustainability can be.”
The Endowment will be working with local partners Harper General Contractors, SynTerra Corporation and Thomas Concrete to showcase this emerging innovation with a rebuild of the parking lot starting this month. The project will involve head-to-head comparison pours of 32 tons on CN enhanced concrete side-by-side with an equal amount of traditional concrete. The long-term goal is to test how well the CN compares to traditional concrete when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, materials used and cost.
Cellulosic nanomaterials are produced by breaking down wood to its tiniest, strongest components through mechanical and chemical processes similar to making paper. For example, a human hair is approximately 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide. The head of a pin is one million nanometers wide. Cellulosic nanomaterials are approximately six nanometers wide.
At the nano scale, materials take on novel properties, said Dr. Alan Rudie of the USDA. Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory. In the case of cellulose, nanomaterials are as strong as steel with only one- fifth the weight. Among other features, they can be used as reinforcing in transparent materials.
“Researchers are testing these cellulosic nanomaterials in a wide range of applications from substrate for flexible computer chips, to composites for car and airplane bodies, lighter and stronger than steel,” said Dr. Rudie. “Our team expects that concrete will be among the first commercial applications.”
The addition of CN to concrete produces a stronger product which has significant advantages over traditional mix, said Dr. Jason Weiss of Oregon State University. By adding CN, there is a 15 percent gain in product strength. Thus, products could use fewer raw materials and perform just as well.
Greg Bell, sales manager with Thomas Concrete, said they were attracted to the project because of the long-ranging applications.
“We like to stay ahead of the game when it comes to advancements within our industry,” Bell said. “When the Endowment came to us with the project, we definitely wanted to be on board.”
Rick Richardson, a vice president with Harper, echoed those statements.
“We are a company that values cutting-edge ideas along with creating a more sustainable future,” said Richardson. “This project allows us to do both while working in a city and community that has been our home for generations.”
SynTerra Corporation will serve as engineers on the project.
“We’re always looking for creative solutions, and we’re always mindful about the environment. Working with this technology puts a checkmark in both boxes,” said Mike Hutchinson, a senior civil engineer at SynTerra.
Addition of these materials could have significant positive benefits for the environment as well. Concrete is largely a mix of small rocks (aggregate), sand, water and cement. Manufacturing cement is an energy intensive process that constitutes about 4 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The cement and concrete industries are actively working to reduce the carbon footprint of their products with CN being among the most promising options.
By adding CN to concrete the mixture causes more of the cement to react than in a traditional mix thereby enabling less cement to be used resulting in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions with equivalent or increased strength. There are other benefits as well, as these materials are not particularly expensive. So, it could be possible to have a win for the planet and for the pocketbook.
But there are even more wins in the forest, said Dr. Rudie. Forest managers are working to restore forests and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire and other threats. These management activities largely target low value wood with few markets.
“Removing low value wood is expensive, so finding markets is critical to forest health and sustainability,” he said. “Products made with CN could provide one of the most important answers to keeping our forests as forests and ensuring their health and sustainability.”