Artificial intelligence produces a recipe for lower-carbon concrete

4/27/2022 11:35:20 AM

The AI-generated formulas undergo slump testing at the UIUC lab as part of their initial performance assessment and refinement. Credit: Meta.
The AI-generated formulas undergo slump testing at the UIUC lab as part of their initial performance assessment and refinement. Credit: Meta.

Concrete is the most popular building material in the world, and we use between 10 and 30 billion tons each year. But the price of that progress is a cost to the environment: Cement, an essential ingredient in concrete, is responsible for 8 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Enter the power of artificial intelligence. Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Meta, and concrete supplier, Ozinga, partnered on discovering better concrete formulas using AI. The early-stage results found the AI-powered formulas reduce the carbon footprint of the concrete by 40% while maintaining strength and durability. Meta tested the formulas on multiple structures at the company’s DeKalb data center, namely the floor slabs of the guardhouse and construction management team’s temporary offices.

“We designed new formulations that nearly halve the carbon requirements of concrete yet are just as strong or stronger than traditional formulations,” said Lav Varshney, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UIUC. “Given the popularity of concrete, there is a global scale of potential applications.”

With its glue-like properties, cement has historically been combined with other ingredients, such as water, sand, and coarse aggregates, to make concrete. But the manufacture of cement causes enormous amounts of carbon emissions, in part because of the fuels needed to heat some of the ingredients to 1,400 degrees Celsius. In addition, one of the key ingredients is limestone (or calcium carbonate), which releases carbon dioxide during calcination in the manufacturing process.

To replace cement in the concrete mix, researchers had to identify a formula that would be as strong, durable, and workable (easy to spread) as the standard one.

Nishant Garg
Nishant Garg
Lav Varshney
Lav Varshney

Varshney and Nishant Garg, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, trained a model using the Concrete Compressive Strength data set, which is openly available from the UCI Machine Learning Repository. This database has 1,030 concrete formulas along with their validated attributes, including seven-day and 28-day compressive strength data (i.e., how the concrete gained strength seven days and 28 days after pouring). The embodied carbon footprint associated with the concrete formulas was derived using the Cement Sustainability Initiative’s Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) tool. EPDs are a standardized way of accounting for the environmental impacts of a product or material, including carbon emissions over its life cycle.

Using the input data on concrete formulas along with their corresponding compressive strength and carbon footprint, the Al model was able to generate several promising new concrete mixes that replaced cement with other supplementary materials, such as fly ash and slag. The final recipe was tested and further refined by Ozinga – taking into account several factors including expected cold weather conditions and material availability – before it was poured at the Meta DeKalb data center.

“A lot of researchers are using AI for predictive purposes, in that you give them certain recipes and they can predict the strength or some other characteristic,” said Garg, who specializes in the chemistry and characterization of construction materials. “But our approach is unique in that we leverage the best available data and use the model to generate the potential recipes based on our needs. It’s tremendously useful.”

The model may also be useful in designing concrete formulas for places where building materials may be less readily available – for example, for constructing cell phone tower foundations in remote rural regions.

The paper has been accepted to appear in the Proceedings of the ACM COMPASS 2022 conference, which will be held in Seattle this summer. The research was funded by the Meta Sustainability Net Zero program, Meta, and the Illinois-IBM Center for Cognitive Computing Systems Research (C3SR).

 This article includes information originally published in Meta’s blog post, “Green concrete: Using AI to reduce concrete’s carbon footprint.”