Alfred University News

Alfred University leading research into developing robust concrete fortified with recycled waste glass

Alfred University, in partnership with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and U.S.-based company Silica-X, is studying ways to develop a concrete fortified with waste glass particles which would stand up to the rigors of a marine environment better than traditional cement material.

Silica-X, a company specializing in experimental glass, plans to place slabs made of concrete like that fashioned by ancient Romans and place them in the ocean to test the material’s durability. Structures—such as sea walls and bridges—made from Roman concrete have been shown to withstand seawater erosion, lasting for several centuries. Similar structures made from Portland cement-based concrete can decay within 30 years.

Popular Science article on ‘self-healing’ Roman concrete

Collin Wilkinson, professor of glass science in Alfred University’s Inamori School of Engineering, said the Silica-X project is part of a collaboration the University and the DEC. Two years ago, Alfred University received $1.7 million from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund to research ways to reuse waste glass products. The University administers the state funding, which supports recycling initiatives by private companies like Silica-X. Alfred University researchers—glass science faculty and graduate students—assist the companies in developing their glass recycling projects. One of the goals of the glass sustainability program is to develop new “sinks,” or products which make use of recycled glass.

Wilkinson said he and his colleagues are studying the characterization of the properties of novel glass-based concrete, “to ensure it functions well.” Researchers at Alfred University and Silica-X are looking into ways that glass waste materials can be used in place of traditional pozzolans (finely powdered material which can be added to mortar as a strengthening agent) to create a cement that has a similar durability in a marine environment as Roman concrete.

University of Utah geology professor Marie Jackson is working with Silica-X to develop the new form of Roman concrete, which is based on her research. If scientists are successful in creating an effective iteration of the material fortified with glass, the environmental benefits will be significant. Cement is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses worldwide and by using alternative materials, such as waste glass, this novel cement should be less harmful to the environment.

Once researchers have developed the modern form of Roman concrete, it will be fashioned into cubes, which will be placed in the ocean and monitored over a two-year period to assess the material’s durability. If the material holds up well, replicating the sturdy Roman concrete from centuries ago, it could be used to build new, longer-lasting sea walls around the world.

“If this works, it will remove a significant amount of glass from the waste stream,” Wilkinson said, pointing to the volume of sea wall construction needed to protect the world’s shorelines. “This will provide a whole lot of affordable sea wall, which the world desperately needs. They (sea walls made from Roman-style concrete) will last much longer, save a ton of money, and limit the amount of glass waste.”

“As a sustainability and recycling researcher myself, this project is incredibly exciting to me,” remarked Gabrielle Gaustad ’04, dean of the Inamori School of Engineering, whose research background is rooted in sustainability. “New York State has the opportunity to be a first mover in this area and these projects create incredible hands-on opportunities for our glass and materials science students.”

The partnership between Alfred University and Silica-X represents the type of collaboration Gaustad and Wilkinson hope will make significant inroads in efforts to reduce the amount of glass flowing into the waste stream.

“Glass is poorly recycled in the United States. It’s very heavy and most of it ends up in landfills,” Wilkinson said, pointing to the long-term environmental benefits of research like that being done by Alfred University and Silica-X. “We need to create projects that make waste sustainable, as landfills are not.”

“Glass is a major challenge for material recovery facilities,” Gaustad added. “Any value-added sinks we can develop, especially the ones with potential for high volume, could be disruptors in the waste management industry and keep glass out of landfills.”