Ahead of the Earthshot Prize 2022 ceremony tonight, we spoke to Dr Natasha Boulding, co-founder of Low Carbon Materials, about her firm’s plans to green the building materials sector
Imagine the shortlist for a glitzy, televised awards bash, organised by royalty and headlined by Billie Eilish, and your first thought is unlikely to have much to do with the rather more workaday world of building materials.
But this evening, in Boston, Massachsetts, a Durham-based concrete start-up will be one of just 14 international finalists in the running for the second annual Earthshot Prize, an award established by the then Prince William, now the Prince of Wales, with the Royal Foundation in 2020.
Low Carbon Materials (LCM) is one of three finalists in the “fix our climate” category, the inaugural winner of which was Enapter’s AEM electrolysers, a product which turns renewable electricity into green hydrogen.
The company was set up and incorporated in 2019 by three scientists, Natasha Boulding, Phil Buckley and Scott Bush, who were each driven by “a passion to create positive and quick impact”. The trio, who did their material science PhDs together at Durham University, wanted to take a solution-led approach to their project and landed on the construction industry with no prior experience whatsoever.
“It’s quite a traditional industry, but it’s a really exciting industry to be in right now because we’re seeing so many different innovations and changes,” says Boulding, chief executive of LCM. “We thought it was really a nice fit to develop products for, because it’s massive and any tiny change we make in the construction industry has massive impact.”
They alighted upon two global problems. The first: waste. Much of the material waste that humans cannot recycle or reuse ends up getting burnt for energy and the process is the second dirtiest way of generating energy after coal.
“We realised that challenge number one is let’s not burn so much […] If we can give waste another life, then that’s, that’s good all around,” says Boulding.
We’re seeing a shift in companies willing to try new materials
Dr Natasha Boulding
The second challenge was addressing the energy-intensive and ecologically damaging job of creating lightweight aggregate for the concrete industry. The construction industry currently makes up 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Chatham House, with concrete making up a significant portion of its carbon output.
“It’s an area that doesn’t get too much attention […] cement gets a lot of attention for the right reasons, because it has a significant carbon footprint, but our focus was, ‘let’s take this lightweight aggregate and see if we can create something that could partially replace some of it because it does have quite high carbon footprint’,” she says.
The result was OSTO, a carbon negative, lightweight aggregate made from waste products and by-products. Boulding would not go into detail about the magic formula but says that among its ingredients is a globally abundant waste plastic that cannot be recycled.
The product remains in the trial phase, but they already have “a few different pilot projects in mind” and are hoping to see it on building sites next year. She admits that, when it comes to market, the product will probably be more expensive than traditional lightweight aggregates but hopes that the price would drop as production scales up. In the next few years, Boulding says she would like to see the product enter widespread use and be used in an “iconic or innovative building”.
Boulding says that becoming an Earthshot finalist was “absolutely incredible” and hopes it will raise awareness of the innovations possible in the industry. “Being a company in what is sometimes deemed as a less sexy sector, it is quite nice to raise awareness,” she says.
“The construction sector is extremely risk adverse and I think that is well placed sometimes, because you’re building buildings that people are living in – or people are working in – or you’re building bridges that cars need to safely go over,” she says. “That being said, we’re seeing a shift in companies willing to try new materials.”
>>See also: What are we going to do about concrete?
LCM recently moved to new premises in Seaham, increasing its workspace five-fold, and is looking to expand its 15-strong team. While OSTO is LCM’s first product, the firm has ambitions to become “the innovation partner of the construction industry”, working on product-based solutions that are more environmentally friendly than traditional building materials.
There are a number of products in the pipeline, Boulding says. Most are too early-stage to discuss but she says they are all “product-based” solutions in the concrete sector – “if you can touch it or feel it, that’s where we are at”.
The Earthshot Prize will be awarded at a ceremony tonight at the MGM Music Hall in Boston and will air on the BBC this Sunday, December 4. The five category winners will be selected by the Earthshot Prize council, which includes Cate Blanchett, Jack Ma, Sir David Attenborough, and Rania Al Abdullah, Queen of Jordan.