UAE architects offer salt as alternative to cement
"The curators' original research reflects the UAE's national spirit of innovation and creativity.
Two Dubai-based architects have proposed an environmentally-friendly cement alternative, inspired by the sabkhas (salt flats) of the UAE.
Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto of waiwai design created a cement from desalination brine, after discovering that the same minerals present in the UAE's sabkhas offered the potential to develop a natural and renewable building material equivalent to the widely-used Portland cement in construction industries around the world.
Portland cement is extremely popular in the industry for its cost-effectiveness, easy availability, high strength and quick setting. "However, the problem with cement is that it's currently responsible for eight per cent of the world's CO2 emissions," explained Wael. "After water, concrete - which is made from cement - is the world's second most highly-consumed material."
Seeking to address the "catastrophic climatic issues" being caused by global CO2 emissions, the duo realised that the cement problem was really a geological problem. "That's when we started analysing the sabkhas of the UAE and their material composition in detail," said Wael.
Research led them to discover that the sabkhas were rich in minerals that could be used to develop an alternate to Portland cement.
Mining the sabkhas was out of the question, however, as the natural assets are extremely valuable in combating climate change, thanks to their ability to absorb CO2.
So, the duo turned to another material on their radar - desalination brine.
The waste material has been a point of national concern in recent years, as the UAE is responsible for producing one-fifth of the world's brine in order to meet its freshwater needs.
In fact, earlier this year, a 'Rethink Brine Challenge' worth Dh3.4 million in prize money was announced to encourage the development of technology that can produce "commercially viable construction material at scale from brine discharge".
"What happens with desalination is that the residual brine gets thrown back into the gulf, causing salinity levels to rise drastically and proving fatal to marine and coral life," said Wael.
Wael and his team worked with universities in the UAE and Tokyo to develop a magnesium-based cement from the brine instead, that they then cast into blocks and set in a carbon dioxide chamber to cure.
The resulting precast blocks - which are equivalent in scale, cost and strength to Portland cement - can "absolutely" be used to construct buildings in the UAE, said Wael.
However, he added, if they wanted this to be a true contender to Portland cement and impact climate change, they would need to further improve the casting methodology.
Wael and Teramoto will be presenting their experimental solution at the 2021 Venice Biennale as curators of the National Pavilion UAE.
Laila Binbrek, Coordinating Director National Pavilion UAE, said: "Protecting our environment for future generations is a collective responsibility, and we know that the construction industry has a significant impact on the natural world.
"The curators' original research reflects the UAE's national spirit of innovation and creativity, and we are very proud that their exhibition will demonstrate the significant contribution that the UAE is able to make to the global climate change crisis."
Wael said he doesn't believe the world is taking sustainable architecture seriously enough, but is thankful for the UAE's continued commitment to sustainable solutions.
"Very few countries are sticking to their pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions," he said. "I believe the UAE is one such country that is seriously self-reflecting and trying to be proactive in recognising that there is problem and finding a solution to it."
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