Self Healing Concrete being tested by Welsh Universities
How algae and self-healing concrete are putting Welsh universities at the forefront of research
Pond scum could be used to help fuel future transport while self-healing concrete will be tested by construction giant Costain.
Swansea’s experts are leading research involving seven European countries to find the best way of turning micro-algae, which is the “scum” found on pond water, into a reliable fuel.
Known as EnAlgae, the project aims to step up Europe’s entry into the market for so-called “Green Crude”.
Like other plants, algae use the sun’s energy to create sugars they live off. Some contain a high amount of fatty molecules, similar to vegetable oils, that can be converted into biodiesel.
Although algae produces some carbon dioxide when burned, unlike fossil fuels, it’s carbon dioxide that algae takes in while growing. This means that when huge lakes and vats of algae are prepared for turning into biofuels, they “suck” the greenhouse gas out of the air.
It also grows quickly and can thrive in salt water, negating the need to use valuable fresh water.
Dr Shaun Richardson, EnAlgae’s coordinator at Swansea University, said: “Algae, especially micro-algae, is ideally suited for conversion into an oil which can then be turned into either aviation fuel for aeroplanes or a bio-diesel to power cars.”
Swansea University opened its laboratories at the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research (CSAR) to the public this week to see the latest work being carried out.
Dr Richardson added: “It’s an exciting field to work in and the outputs of our scientific team could well benefit all our lives in the future.”
Meanwhile, Cardiff University is involved in an exciting “Materials for Life” research project along with Cambridge and Bath Universities which aims to produce the building industry’s holy grail – “self healing concrete”.
The researchers have developed a system using microbes embedded in concrete which spark into life once water enters a crack. The water triggers the microbes to produce limestone deposits plugging the crack before water and oxygen can corrode steel reinforcements inside.
At the same time the newly developed concrete will use specially developed polymer tendons, like conventional steel rods, that can be activated to shrink and close gaps.
Construction giant Costain is now planning to trial the prototype self-healing concrete as part of a project to create an in-built “concrete immune system” that reacts to repair cracks.
The experimental concrete will fitted with special bacteria contained in protective microcapsules that can be added to the original mix.
The university researchers will work with Costain and other stakeholders, including BRE, Highways Agency, the Welsh Government and Atkins to test and develop the idea.
The products developed will be trialled at several Costain sites from spring 2015 once the technology is fine-tuned.
Andrea Green, project manager, said: “Self-healing concrete could be a game changer for the industry, with the potential to enhance durability, improve safety and dramatically reduce maintenance costs.”
Oliver Teall, a Costain graduate civil engineer, who will carry out research leading to a PhD at Cardiff University will be looking at how “shape memory polymers” can be used to help heal cracks in concrete.
He said: “Polymer tendons are incorporated into the concrete. If a crack occurs, these tendons can currently be activated by either heat or an electrical supply.
“They then spring back to their original shape, compressing the concrete and closing the crack.”
Cardiff University researcher Dr Diane Gardner won the You Heard It Here First event at the British Science Festival last month for her work on self-healing concrete.