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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Concrete Alternative Made of Sugarcane Waste

Updated: Dec 3, 2023


“This will benefit and revolutionize the construction industry, ” said a researcher at the American University in Cairo.

 

Architects, engineers and scientists have been exploring sugarcane waste as an alternative to current construction building materials and as a partial substitute for cement in order to reduce the pollutants’ degradation of the environment.


“As countries around the world strive towards net-zero, the drive is on to find materials and methods that can make the construction process more sustainable,” according to Ivan Dimensions, a software technology architectural design firm, which is based in the United Kingdom and the United States.


Sugarcane is the most productive crop in the world. Total production in 2018 was 1.91 billion tons, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. There has been research into using its waste, called bagasse, in the production of bio-based material and as a biofuel. In Belize, for example, bagasse supplies the electricity for a sugar mill as well as 15 percent of the country’s population, reported Belize Sugar Industries.


However, globally, bagasse is often discarded in ways that harm the environment, including burning, which releases high levels of carbon dioxide.


At the same time, cement in concrete is the most widely used building material in the world, releasing a huge amount of carbon dioxide, according to Utilization of sugarcane bagasse ash (SCBA) in construction technology: A state-of-the-art review (September 15, 2022), Journal of Building Engineering.


“During the production of cement, calcination of raw materials, such as limestone for clinker production and fossil fuels used for heating, will emit a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. . . . In addition, the cement industry releases a large number of harmful gases (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide) and heavy metals, resulting in air pollution and heavy metal contamination in the environment.”


Among others, researchers at the American University in Cairo; Oaxaca, Mexico, through the Student Internship Program (SIP) from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, at Harvard University, in the U.S., and at the University of East London, in the U.K., are exploring the use of sugarcane as building material or as supplementary cementitious materials (SCM) as partial replacement for cement in concrete.


Characteristics of Bagasse


Another impetus to finding new supplementary material is that the traditional fly ash from coal combustion and granulated blast furnace slags from steel production is under threat by the transition to cleaner energy, according to Utilization of sugarcane bagasse ash.


Bagasse is similar in composition to wood, according to Ivan Dimensions. The ash is mainly silicon dioxide, an element that has been carefully studied in portland cement mixes. Because ash is generally light, it can help to minimize the bulk of construction materials.


Bagasse ash has been tested in concrete, mortar, bricks and clay tiles.


The inherent biodegradability of this material makes it a preferable choice for the environment, according to Ivan Dimensions.


American University in Cairo


Researchers at the American University in Cairo said in October that sugarcane waste is either being thrown into the Nile River, illegal dumps, or even burned, which has exceeded 2 million tons of carbon dioxide in Egypt.


They are working at reducing the content of portland cement from concrete from 40 percent to 30 or 35 percent and adding 10 percent of bagasse ash.


“We compared the blocks that had the sugarcane bagasse ash with the normal concrete portland blocks that exist in the market. In some of the tests, the results are close to each other. However, in most of them, the results are more adequate. This will really benefit and revolutionize the construction industry because the construction industry produces more than 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions globally.”

 

“Using only 30 percent of the world bagasse production, Sugarcrete could replace the traditional brick industry entirely, offering a potential saving of 1.08 billion tons of carbon dioxide, 3 percent of the global carbon dioxide production,” said the team.

 

Sugarcrete, An Alternative to Brick and Concrete


Grimshaw, the architectural firm which designed the Eden Project, a tourist attraction in Cornwall, and the University of East London have collaborated to create the trademarked Sugarcrete, a biomaterial construction block with an interlocking shape made from bagasse, with support from Tate & Lyle Sugars, reported Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, on May 4.


Sugarcrete was developed to be a low-cost and low-carbon reusable construction material alternative to brick and concrete, according to Dezeen. Researcher plan to work with local nongovernmental organizations to test a prototype, reported Ace News, of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, on May 5.


Alan Chandler, co-director of the University of East London’s Sustainability Research Institute, said:


“By partnering locally, the production potential in each situation is evaluated, defining whether cement-use reduction can be made using locally created Sugarcrete, or whether there is capacity to grow export markets for raw material of finished products to benefit GDP (Gross Domestic Product).


“This is particularly relevant for sugar-producing communities, where construction materials are frequently imported, environmentally poor performing, high cost and high carbon. For example, a concrete block in Cuba, a major sugar-producing country costs $3 – an average monthly salary is $148.”


Bagasse was mixed with mineral binders to create Sugarcrete, which was four times lighter and 15 to 20 percent of the carbon footprint of bricks. Besides being cheaper than concrete, Sugarcrete’s carbon emissions are 20 times lower.

 

Oaxaca, Mexico, Hybrid panel: a) cane bagasse ash-lime-corncob matrix; b) panel with two ferro-cement plates (thin cement slabs reinforced with steel mesh) and, in between, a panel with sugarcane bagasse-lime-corncob ash matrix

 

Bagasse and Corn Cob Panels in Oaxaca


Modern buildings and houses do not adapt to daily extreme temperature deviations, according to Sugarcane Products As a Sustainable Construction Material – Case Study: Thermophysical Properties of a Corn Cob and Cane Bagasse Ash Panel (September 27, 2022), Sugarcane.


Energy waste, health problems and severe environmental effects are the results.


Imported commercial materials, such as polyurethane-based insulating foams and polystyrene used to insulate the building, negatively affect the environment from production to disposal as a waste material.


The City of Oaxaca is located in the southeast of Mexico. Its climate is temperate. Summers are humid along the eastern lowlands and have an average daytime temperature from 9 Celsius degrees (48.2 Fahrenheit) to 34 Celsius degrees (93.2 Fahrenheit). It has an altitude of 1550 meters (5085.3 feet) above sea level. When the range of oscillation is more than 14 Celsius degrees, it is considered extreme.


“The results of a psychrometric chart show that 77 percent of the time, people are thermally uncomfortable, and only 22.4 percent have thermal comfort conditions in the City of Oaxaca.”

Thermal inertia is a necessary thermophysical property for extreme climates with significant thermal oscillations during the day and night. It represents the ability of a material to conduct and store heat.


A panel, which was composed of sugarcane bagasse, corn cob and lime, was made to meet thermal comfort conditions. The hybrid panel and two outer layers of reinforced mortar comprised a sandwich-type construction component. The surface thermal performance of the panels was tested and found to be effective.


“Therefore, such a composite can provide an environmentally friendly alternative for energy savings and thermal comfort,” according to Sugarcane Products.


Sugarcane Production


Mexico's production of sugarcane is estimated at 5.7 million tons for 2023/24, according to Sugar: World Markets and Trade (November 2023), United States Department of Agriculture.


Brazil is the largest producer of sugar at an estimated 41 million tons for 2023/24.


In Egypt, the production volume of sugarcane in 2021 was about 12.4 million metric tons, according to Statistica.


In Belize, cane production in 2016/17 was 1.44 million tons, an increase over a 7-year average of 1.13 million tons, according to Creating a Sustainable Sugar Industry in Northern Belize (2020), Inter-American Development Bank, Sugar Industry Control Board, and Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute.


Recognizing sugarcane as its largest agricultural industry and most important export, Belize has been focused on improving production by its 5,400 sugarcane farmers by teaching efficiency, financial literacy and utilization of best practices, Approximately 15 percent of the country’s population of 400,000 depend -- directly or indirectly -- on the sugarcane industry.

 

A limestone famous for its use in architecture, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and the United Nations Headquarters, New York, is quarried at the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England. The patent recipient of portland cement called it that because the concrete made from it resembled Portland stone. (Photo from Dorset’s Important Geological Sites)

 

History of Cement


Portland cement is the most common type of cement used around the world as a basic ingredient of concrete, mortar and stucco.


The origin of hydraulic cements goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, according to Britannica. The materials used were lime and a volcanic ash that slowly reacted with it in the presence of water to form a hard mass.


Portland cement is a successor to a hydraulic lime that was developed by John Smeaton in 1756, when he was called upon to erect the third Eddystone Lighthouse off the coast of Plymouth, Devon County, in England.


The invention of portland cement usually is attributed to Joseph Aspdin of Leeds, Yorkshire, England, who patented a material in 1824 that was produced from a mixture of limestone and clay. He called the product “portland cement” because the concrete made from it resembled that of the limestone quarried on the Isle of Portland, a peninsula in Dorset, England.


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