A group of UCLA engineers has become the first university team to win the $7.5 million grand prize in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE global competition, it was announced Monday.
The UCLA CarbonBuilt team, led by Gaurav Sant, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, won the prize in the competition’s track for technologies related to coal-fired power generation.
By mitigating the carbon footprint of concrete, the team’s invention could eventually be a major step in the global battle against climate change, Sant said.
The winning technology is considered a first-of-its-kind, eco-friendly approach for taking carbon dioxide emissions directly from power plants and other industrial facilities — emissions that would otherwise go into the atmosphere — and infusing them into a new type of concrete invented by the team, according to UCLA. As it hardens and gains strength, the specially formulated concrete permanently absorbs and traps the greenhouse gas.
Through extensive research at UCLA and testing at the Integrated Test Center, a facility outside of Gillette, Wyoming, the researchers demonstrated that their process reduced the carbon footprint of concrete by more than 50% while producing concrete that was just as strong and durable as the traditional material, Sant said.
Each CarbonBuilt concrete block stores about three-quarters of a pound of carbon dioxide — a significant amount considering an estimated one trillion concrete blocks will be produced annually by the year 2027, Sant said.
The professor joined the UCLA faculty in 2010. He and a group of staff scientists, postdoctoral scholars and doctoral students began the research that led to the award in 2014.
“I am absolutely thrilled that CarbonBuilt has won the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE,” said Sant, who directs the UCLA Institute for Carbon Management and also holds a faculty appointment in the UCLA Samueli materials science and engineering department.
“As a third-generation civil engineer, I have been fascinated with the role that construction has played in solving societal challenges,” he said. “To have spent the past decade developing a solution to mitigate the carbon footprint of concrete with a phenomenal team, and to have won the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE doing something I’m passionate about is an ultimate dream come true.”
Sponsored by NRG Energy and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition was launched in September 2015 to find ways to beneficially use carbon dioxide emissions. The nonprofit XPRIZE Foundation challenged a global community of problem-solvers to develop technologies for turning carbon dioxide from coal and natural gas power plant emissions into valuable products.
UCLA’s entry was one of 47 submissions from 38 teams in seven countries. CarbonBuilt, formerly known as CO2Concrete, was named one of the 10 finalists in October 2017.
Sant said the original inspiration for the winning technology came from an unlikely source: seashells.
“Seashells are made of calcium carbonate, which is nature’s original cementation agent,” he said. “We were really motivated by the idea of how seashells were held together. And that’s how we really set about to turn carbon dioxide into concrete.”