Researchers in California are working on a new method for sequestering the carbon dioxide generated by fossil fuel power plants in a 3D printable concrete.

The cross-disciplinary team from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) believe they can capture the carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and use it as an ingredient in a concrete building material that is produced using additive manufacturing processes.

The technique first involves extracting the carbon dioxide that would otherwise be discharged by coal or gas-based power plants into the earth’s atmosphere, and then combining it with lime to produce a cement-like material.

The resulting material is then fashioned into a solid components by means of 3D printing methods, which translates into an endless range of possibilities with respect to the precise shape or configuration of the final product.

The UCLA team has already produced a successful proof of concept by printing a set of small cones using the carbon-based concrete, and now hope to test the material under real-world conditions.

According to Gaurav Sant, associate professor and Henry Samueli Fellow in Civil and Environmental Engineering, the development of the concrete involves the creation of complete and effective technological process, with one of the key hurdles being the ability to produce building components at a larger scale.

“We can demonstrate a process where we take lime and combine it with carbon dioxide to produce a cement-like material,” said Sant. “The big challenge we foresee with this is we’re not just trying to develop a building material. We’re trying to develop a process solution, an integrated technology which goes right from CO2 to a finished product.

“There is a scale challenge, because rather than print something that’s five centimetres long, we want to be able to print a beam that’s five metres long. The size scalability is a really important part.”

J.R. DeShazo, professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, believes the technology could have profound implications for the carbon footprint and infrastructure creation of industrialising countries, given just how much energy and concrete the economic development process consumes.

“This technology could change the economic incentives associated with these power plants in their operations and turn the smokestack flue gas into a resource countries can use, to build up their cities, extend their road systems,” DeShazo said. “It takes what was a problem and turns it into a benefit in products and services that are going to be very much needed and valued in places like India and China.”