How AI can make concrete more sustainable and profitable

Concrete is one of the most widely used and important materials in the world. It is essential for building infrastructure, improving human development, and providing shelter. However, it also has a huge environmental impact, as it accounts for about 8% of the global CO2 emissions due to the use of cement, its main ingredient.

But what if there was a way to make concrete significantly more sustainable and profitable at the same time? What if we could use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to optimize the design of concrete mixtures, reduce the amount of cement, and lower the cost and carbon footprint of concrete production?

That is exactly what, a company founded by Alex Hall, is doing.

In the NatureBacked episode 85, Alex Hall shared with me his vision, his technology, and his challenges in transforming the concrete industry with AI.

Solving the concrete problem with AI?!

Concrete is a valuable product that has many benefits for infrastructure and human development, but reducing its environmental impact is crucial for the future. Hall said that his company's goal is to eventually turn concrete into a carbon sink, capturing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Hall described how his company uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to optimize the design of concrete mixtures. He compared concrete to a cake mixture, which has different ingredients that can be varied depending on the type of cake or the application.

Hall said that his company's technology can model the properties of different raw materials and combinations, and produce the optimum mix for a given engineering requirement and environmental impact. He said that this technology does not require any capital investment from the producers and that it can work with the existing materials and processes. He also mentioned that his company is looking into alternative materials that can substitute for cement in the future and that some of them are already being tested and scaled by other companies.

The challenge of scale and demand

Hall emphasized the challenge of scaling and substituting the cement industry, which produces 3.5 billion tons of cement every year and is expected to grow by 4.5% to 5% annually until 2040. He said that concrete is not going anywhere and that it is a necessity for many developing countries that need more infrastructure and energy. He said that his company's mission is to help these countries use concrete more sustainably and to avoid the mistakes that the industrialized countries have made.

Concrete can be recycled and reconstituted for different applications, but that it may not have the same properties as the original product.

The commercialization and deployment of the technology

Hall and his colleagues at UCLA decided to take their technology into the commercial space in 2021, and they secured funding and partnerships with multiple concrete producers in the US.

Hall said that they have now installed their software in 18 different operations and they are aiming to reach 85 by the end of the year. He said that their technology provides economic and environmental benefits, as it reduces the cost and the CO2 emissions of concrete production.

Hall compared his technology with other competitors and said that his approach is different because it relies on the power of data and AI, rather than hardware. 

The future of AI and 3D printing in the construction industry

Alex speculated to me about the future of AI and 3D printing in the construction industry, and how they could converge to create more efficient and sustainable structures. He expects concrete to be relevant in the next decades, but that it could be improved by using new materials and methods.

3D printing could enable printing the most optimal shape and structure for concrete elements, and it could also eliminate the need for reinforcing. Hall said that these technologies are not yet at scale, but they will happen eventually.

Employing's software can reduce the CO2 emissions of concrete by up to 30%, one factory at a time.

The full podcast episode with Alex Hall is here on NatureBacked.