Upcycling: How CO2 to CO2NCRETE Can Tackle Climate Change

By the UCLA Carbon Upcycling Team and George Foulsham at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs


Imagine a world without concrete. Would that even be possible? After all, concrete is everywhere — on our roads, in our homes, bridges and buildings. For the past 200 years, it’s been the very foundation of our civilization. Cement, the component that gives concrete its strength when mixed with water, is produced at a staggering scale – over 4 billion tons per year. As a result, cement production is one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas sources, responsible for about 7 percent of the planet’s CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions.

We are Carbon Upcycling, a team of interdisciplinary researchers at UCLA competing for the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. We developed a unique solution that may eliminate such CO2 emissions. “Upcycling” involves the creation of a closed-loop process: capturing CO2 before it is emitted into the atmosphere and using it to create a new 3D-printed building material — CO2NCRETE. The unprecedented use of 3D fabrication in structural design will not only dramatically expand what can be realized by architects and structural engineers, but will also modernize the labor-intensive construction industry.

The figure below illustrates Carbon Upcycling’s closed-loop process.


The versatility of Carbon Upcycling’s approach enables the use of CO2 from any point source, such as the smokestacks of coal- or natural gas-fired power plants, and cement plants. CO2 emissions from these plants are the largest global source of harmful greenhouse gases.

This isn’t the first attempt to capture CO2 emissions from power plants. It’s been done before, but the challenge has been what to do with the captured CO2. Upcycling transforms CO2 from a problematic waste into a useful resource.

“The approach we are trying to propose is to look at CO2 as a resource — a resource you can reutilize,” said Gaurav Sant, Associate Professor and Henry Samueli Fellow in Civil and Environmental Engineering. “While cement production results in carbon dioxide, just as the production of coal or the production of natural gas does, if we can reutilize CO2 to produce a new kind of cement, that’s a tremendous opportunity.” Once commercialized, this technology offers a much lower-CO2 emissions trajectory for the construction and power sectors across the globe while promoting environmentally sustainable growth.


Gaurav Sant (right) leads the UCLA team along with UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Public Policy Professor, JR DeShazo (left). In this photo, they display a lab-scale 3D printed piece of the CO2NCRETE.

We recently announced our official entry into the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a $20M competition that challenges teams to develop breakthrough technologies that convert the most CO2 into one or more products with the highest net value. The world needs innovative answers to the CO2 problem. Hopefully, Carbon Upcycling and other groups will inspire more people to think outside of the box when considering solutions for sustainability challenges.


UCLA’s Carbon Upcycling Team

  • Mathieu Bauchy is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • J.R. DeShazo is the Director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and a UCLA Professor of Public Policy, Urban Planning and Envronmental Engineering
  • Richard Kaner is a Distiguished Professor in the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and UCLA’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering
  • Laurent Pilon is a UCLA Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
  • Gaurav Sant is an Associate Professor and Henry Samueli Fellow in the UCLA Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

George Foulsham is the Executive Director of Communications at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs