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Infrastructure sector challenges crying out for innovative chemistry solutions!

Posted on 08/04/2019

KTN's Dr Matthew Reeves highlights key areas where innovative chemistry solutions could help solve challenges in the infrastructure sector.

The infrastructure sector is one of the biggest sources of economic activity in the UK (around £32bn GVA per year), which provides the built environment that we all use on a daily basis.  The Government has recently invested £167m in an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) programme for Transforming Construction, which seeks to find new ways of building and new materials with which to build. Chemical sector companies can provide solutions to the innovation challenges experienced by the infrastructure sector – and potentially utilise funding through this Transforming Construction Programme to de-risk that innovation – but in order to do so, the specific innovation challenges of the infrastructure sector need to be shared with the chemical sector.

On 13th February 2019, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) and the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform (i3P) convened around 60 experts representing major UK infrastructure projects (including Heathrow, HS2, Environment Agency and Highways England), their immediate supply chain partners and representatives from the chemical sector to identify areas where innovation in chemistry could provide solutions for the infrastructure sector.  7 client-led innovation challenges were discussed during the workshop leading to the development of 9 new ideas for collaborative R&D projects. A summary of the key innovation themes that emerged on the day are described below.

Aerial view of an airport runway

Low carbon building materials

Large quantities of concrete will be required for building projects into the foreseeable future – for example, Heathrow will require approximately six million cubic metres of concrete to add its third runway.

The negative environmental impact of cement and concrete is leading to calls for low-carbon alternatives to these materials that can also give improved material performance.  The supply of concrete additives (e.g. blast furnace slag, fly ash) currently used to reduce the carbon footprint are forecast to be in short supply in the near to medium term.  Hence, new additives or new materials are needed.  There are some promising potential solutions in the fields of nanotechnology and composites – by including graphene in the concrete mix the material strength can be greatly improved, reducing the volume of material needed.  Structures, including bridges, have already been built using entirely composite materials showing the potential of this approach.  However, the current system around standards and the time taken to prove a material for use in the infrastructure sector may be inhibiting innovation in this area.   A future workshop will explore the issue of standards for innovation in greater detail.

Corroded metal sheets by a waterway

Prevention and maintenance associated with corrosion

Corrosion of steel sheet pile river walls along a 20km section of the Thames water course (see picture), as well as corrosion experienced by associated gates, barriers and pumping stations throughout London, Kent and Essex is a major problem for the Environment Agency.  They need to be able to quantify the level of damage and to repair the structures quickly to maintain their integrity and performance.  Some of the ideas proposed in the workshop were to look at novel anti corrosion coatings and smart sensor technologies for measuring corrosive and stress-induced decay.

Corrosion in general is a significant challenge for the infrastructure sector, particularly bi-metallic corrosion in atmospheric environments.    Over time – and accelerated by moisture – this corrosion can lead to large bills for parts to be replaced.  This is a significant infrastructure issue which impacts almost all installations.

Sustainable high performance material design

Heathrow (and other airports) need to be able to repair damaged runway segments within a 6 hour time window overnight. To achieve this they require quick setting, high “early-strength” concrete.  However, current methods result in repeated failure within 5 years – the challenge is to extend the lifetime of the repaired concrete segments by using novel concrete formulations (or other materials) whilst reducing the environmental impact.

Another challenge posed by Heathrow was reflection cracking –  thermal movement at joints and discontinuities in the concrete paving slabs lead to cracking and early failure of the asphalt layer.  The requirement is for a more flexible material that can withstand these deformations whilst also being strong enough to support aircraft loads.  Some ideas proposed at the workshop included novel asphalt formulations and coatings as well as the potential use of sprayed concrete for repairing cracked concrete sections.

A use for London clay?

Tunneling projects conducted by HS2 are producing huge amounts (around 4m cubic metres) of waste London clay.  They are looking for uses for the clay, to avoid sending it to landfill.  Previous uses include building a nature reserve at Wallasea Island. It was suggested during the workshop that the clay could be chemically processed into low and high grade material additives, however other ideas are being invited.

Over the coming months KTN will continue to engage with the infrastructure & chemicals sector to identify opportunities for each sector to work together on collaborative innovation –  stay tuned for updates on forthcoming activities in this area.  If you would like to know more, please contact Matthew Reeves and sign up to our newsletters.