Composite polymers – the key to a sustainable construction sector

In 2019, the EU and the world witnessed the green movement gather momentum. The environmental agenda has become a global priority with activists like Greta Thunberg achieving international acclaim and new European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen stating that she wants ‘the European Green Deal to become Europe’s hallmark’ with Europe aiming to be the world’s first carbon-neutral continent.

CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 Source: EP

Institutional targets are aligning with the major shift in public opinion towards supporting a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Industries like the construction sector have also realised the importance of keeping their finger on the pulse of changing societal perspectives and have become tasked with finding sustainable and economically viable solutions.

To provide these solutions, companies are developing technologically advanced materials that have a long product life, high performance, and are versatile, like composite polymers. Epoxy resins are reactive polymers that support sustainability in a variety of ways. They make products more energy efficient, durable, lessen maintenance needs, offer thermal insulation and increase the product life span. All while using more environmentally-friendly substances in comparison to their cheaper counterparts like concrete and metal.

Sustainable rebar

Photo by SAMS Solutions

Cheap construction comes at price in the long-run when lower quality materials are chosen over more durable options. Companies are investing in expanding the capabilities of tried and trusted epoxy resins in order to develop construction materials like the reinforced epoxy rebar. One example of this is the LITESTONE rebar, which has exceptional corrosion resistance and strength that can withstand extreme conditions like mechanical stress and weathering. The lifespan of an epoxy reinforced rebar is 100 years in comparison to the industry average of 50 years for metal reinforcement bars. The steel rebar, while being inexpensive is susceptible to corrosion caused by salts, moisture and chemicals. Swelling caused by corrosion increases the pressure on concrete which speeds up the deterioration of the structure, making expensive repairs necessary.

In addition to having a longer lifespan that reduces the amount of waste produced by the industry, LITESTONE technology is better for the environment than many other long-lasting reinforcement bars that incorporate more environmentally challenging materials like styrene into their product, which can leach out into the surrounding environment. The rebar also provides thermal insulation, this reduces the movement of heat and vapour condensation within the concrete, reducing deformation, humidity and mould. Around 50% of buildings’ heat loss takes place through the exterior walls. Thermal insulation reduces this loss of heat and when applied properly throughout the building, can lower energy expenses by around 50%.  Buildings are the largest single consumers of energy in the EU, prompting the European Commission in 2018, as part of its clean energy legislative proposals, to create a path to decarbonise buildings by 2050.

Level(s) framework for buildings’ sustainability.

Level(s) is the EU’s new voluntary reporting framework for buildings’ sustainability.

As green policy develops, architects and the construction industry overall need to develop a long-term sustainable perspective alongside it. One of the challenges that the composite industry faces is their initial higher cost in comparison to competitor materials. However, in the long-run these costs can be much lower when considering various savings like on maintenance costs.

In today’s rapidly changing environment and its harsh conditions, it can also be particularly beneficial to be able to rapidly construct flexible and durable buildings. Modern building practices like modular construction with composite materials are utilised for quickly building temporary buildings that can be dismantled and reused at another location. These practices support reuse as part of the circular economy. This contrasts with traditional solutions that would not support this flexibility. For example, in Brazil, schools that were destroyed by heavy rains were rebuilt within two months using modular building methods, whereas concrete foundations could take between 2 – 4 weeks to construct alone.

Investing in high-quality composite materials today will save time, energy and money, all while preventing excessive and unnecessary chemical leaching and construction waste. In 2019, the European Council concluded that maintenance and renovation of existing buildings can play a role in the green transition. They stressed the importance of funding research and commercialising research results to develop more sustainable construction products to reduce the lifecycle impact of buildings, increase energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions.

It is the composite industry, including epoxy producers, that are investing in creating environmentally-friendly economic solutions to construction problems like excessive energy use and high maintenance costs. Epoxy resins are an essential companion for the construction industry as it moves forward into the green era.

This article was originally published in Tunnels & Infrastructures and Obras Urbanas.