Greater Manchester research into 2D materials supports innovation in building materials which could help to reduce the global construction industry’s carbon footprint.

Concrete strengthened with graphene to make it more sustainable has been laid for the first time in a commercial setting, demonstrating how the carbon footprint of construction works can be significantly reduced in future.

Production of conventional concrete currently accounts for around 8% of global C02 emissions annually.

However, the amount of concrete required to meet construction criteria falls significantly with the addition of graphene – a 2D material first isolated at the University of Manchester.

A joint venture between the University of Manchester and construction company Nationwide Engineering led to the production of Concretene.

The addition of tiny amounts of graphene strengthens Concretene by around 30% compared to standard concrete, meaning significantly less is needed to achieve the equivalent structural performance, reducing carbon footprint and costs.

The additional strength also reduces the need for steel reinforcement, saving material and time on site and further promoting the green credentials of this building method.

Nationwide Engineering estimates that an additional cost of 5% for Concretene will be offset by the reduction in material to deliver an overall saving of 10-20% over standard RC30 concrete.

In May, Nationwide Engineering laid the first Concretene slab during construction of the new Southern Quarter gym in Amesbury’s Solstice Park – owned and run by military veterans and due to open in summer 2021.

Alex McDermott, co-founder and managing director of Nationwide Engineering, said:

“We are thrilled to have developed and constructed this game-changing, graphene-enhanced concrete on a real project.

“Together with our partners at The University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) and structural engineers HBPW Consulting, we are rapidly evolving our knowledge and experience and are positioned for wider industry deployment through our construction frameworks, becoming the go-to company for graphene-enhanced concrete.”

Nationwide Engineering has three existing five-year construction frameworks with Network Rail and two seven-year Government Crown commercial building frameworks.

With Network Rail committing to an 11% reduction in CO2 emissions over the next four years, graphene-enhanced concrete shows significant potential to help meet this target.

Supported by significant infrastructure investment – including £5m in GM LEP funding for the GEIC– Greater Manchester has become a global centre for research in the applications for graphene and other 2D materials.

Concretene: How it works

Liquid concrete sets into its solid form through chemical reactions known as hydration and gelation, where the water and cement in the mixture react to form a paste that dries and hardens over time.

Graphene makes a difference by acting as a mechanical support and as a catalyst surface for the initial hydration reaction, leading to better bonding at a microscopic scale and giving the finished product improved strength, durability and corrosion resistance.

Crucially, Concretene can be used just like standard concrete, meaning no new equipment or training is needed in the batching or laying process, and cost-savings can be passed directly to the client.

Dr Craig Dawson, Application Manager at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, explained:

“We have produced a graphene-based additive mixture that is non-disruptive at the point of use.

“That means we can dose our additive directly at the batching plant where the concrete is being produced as part of their existing system, so there’s no change to production or to the construction guys laying the floor.

“We have been able to do this via thorough investigation – alongside our University colleagues from the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering – of the materials we are using and we can tailor this approach to use any supplier’s graphene, so we are not beholden to a single supplier.

“This makes Concretene a more viable proposition as there is increased security of supply.”

At Amesbury, an initial pour of 234m2 of Concretene was conducted on-site on 6 May, with a further 495m2 laid on Tuesday 25 May to complete the concrete floor slab.

The graphene used for the pour on 25 May was supplied by Versarien plc.

Nationwide Engineering will manage and monitor the site during its fit-out and onward operation, effectively creating a ‘living laboratory’ at Southern Quarter to measure and evaluate the performance of the material.

This project has been funded by Innovate UK and the European Regional Development Fund’s Bridging the Gap programme as a joint venture between Nationwide Engineering, The University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) and Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE).

The GEIC is a £60m facility at The University of Manchester. It opened in 2018 and dedicated to the commercialisation of graphene and other advanced materials.

Graphene was first isolated at the University in 2004 by two Russian scientists – Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov – who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010 for their work on this new material.

Apart from being incredibly strong, graphene is also flexible, see-through and highly thermally and electrically conductive, leading to numerous technological and engineering applications, from anti-corrosion coatings and advanced telecoms to new treatments for cancer.

Graphene@Manchester team on-site in Amesbury (l-r): Craig Dawson, Happiness Ijije, Lisa Scullion

Graphene@Manchester team on-site in Amesbury (l-r): Craig Dawson, Happiness Ijije, Lisa Scullion