"Sugarcrete™: Revolutionizing Construction with Sustainable Sugarcane By-Products
How the innovative building material Sugarcrete™, developed by the University of East London, is transforming construction by utilizing sugarcane by-products to create sustainable and structurally efficient building materials.
Researchers have been actively seeking effective solutions for agricultural waste management, particularly in finding valuable uses for by-products from various crops. By-products such as residues from soybean production, corn cobs, straw, sunflower seeds, and cellulose have typically been used for soil composting, animal feed, or energy conversion to reduce waste and minimize environmental impacts. One such by-product is bagasse fiber waste from sugarcane production, which has immense potential to revolutionize the construction industry by providing sustainable and structurally efficient building materials.
The University of East London (UEL), in collaboration with Grimshaw Architects and Tate & Lyle Sugar, has developed an innovative building material called Sugarcrete™. The project aims to explore sustainable building solutions by recycling biological by-products from sugarcane, ultimately reducing carbon emissions in the construction sector and prioritizing social and environmental sustainability throughout the production and implementation processes.
Sugarcrete™ challenges the common misconception that biomaterials have low structural performance. "The main innovation of Sugarcrete™ is to create a material with enough structural strength to be self-supporting," says Armor Gutierrez Rivas, Senior Architecture Professor at UEL. The project originated from research conducted as part of the Master of Architecture program at UEL, which focuses on innovative building solutions addressing local issues. Through collaboration with Grimshaw architects and AKT II engineers, initial explorations were tested and optimized at the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI), resulting in the creation of Sugarcrete™ Slab.
Sugarcrete™ is produced by combining bagasse with mineral binders, resulting in a product that is lighter than traditional brick and has only 15-20% of its carbon footprint. If 30% of global bagasse production were used, Sugarcrete™ could potentially replace the entire traditional brick industry, resulting in a remarkable reduction of 1.08 billion tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to 3% of global carbon dioxide production. Sugarcane is a fast-growing crop that efficiently converts CO2 into biomass, making it an ideal material for achieving net-zero emissions. Additionally, Sugarcrete™ exhibits good structural characteristics, insulation properties, fire resistance, ease of use, and a simplified supply chain due to its simple composition.
The Sugarcrete™ production process is similar to conventional concrete block manufacturing, involving materials proportioning, mixing, casting, and drying/curing. The mineral-based binder components are widely available in regions with established sugar industries. However, large-scale production may face challenges related to the variability of raw feedstock in terms of moisture content, particle size, and impurities.
To explore the application possibilities of Sugarcrete™, the development team collaborated with Grimshaw, incorporating the concept of interlocking geometries. The interlocking method, first patented in the late 17th century, allows for the construction of large structures using small, discrete components without the need for mortar. This system outperforms traditional monolithic assemblies in terms of reciprocity and distributed force network. The casting process minimizes material waste and enables formwork reuse, simplified mass production, and opportunities for Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA).
The project employed a complete digital toolchain for manufacturing, integrating material computation, parametric design, and robotic manufacturing. The digital model of Sugarcrete™ was used to fabricate molds with a 6-axis robotic arm, ensuring precision and efficiency. The digital and physical worlds were seamlessly integrated to create a flexible and customizable kit-of-parts system using this sustainable material. This approach highlights the potential of computational design and advanced fabrication to enable the use of natural materials in architecture, embracing their unique characteristics and promoting inclusive and affordable architectural solutions.
Interestingly, the Sugarcrete™ research was intentionally published without a patent to encourage local producers to adopt the material and reduce cement use. The project prioritized ethical considerations and aimed to establish viable, fair, and robust supply chains that benefit both producers and users. The team is actively identifying potential implementation sites in sugar-producing regions of the Global South, further expanding opportunities for the adoption of Sugarcrete™. Real-world testing of the prototype is planned in the near future.
With its conscious and careful development, Sugarcrete™ offers optimism for the construction industry's future. Construction's significant environmental impact necessitates effective and swift action. Alan Chandler, Co-Director of the Sustainability Research Institute at UEL, emphasizes the importance of designing both the supply chain and performance specifications with carbon reduction and safety priorities in mind. By utilizing bagasse and other fast-growing biological products in combination with mineral binders, construction sites can eliminate chemically maligned and fossil fuel-based materials. This not only addresses carbon reduction but also enhances safety throughout the construction process.
Elena Shilova, Architect at Grimshaw, highlights the potential of local and sustainable materials and unused agricultural/industrial by-products. These materials, despite lacking a glamorous and elegant appearance, offer high-tech solutions to combat the climate emergency. Shilova stresses the need for a new architectural language that embraces materials like Sugarcrete™, celebrating their unique attributes without masking them for a "modern" aesthetic. By promoting this change in mindset and architectural language, natural materials can become attractive to customers, driving up demand and lowering prices through economies of scale.
As the construction industry seeks sustainable alternatives, Sugarcrete™ emerges as a game-changer. By repurposing sugarcane by-products, it demonstrates the potential for innovative solutions that reduce carbon emissions, prioritize sustainability, and foster a circular economy. With ongoing research and development, Sugarcrete™ paves the way for a greener and more environmentally conscious construction industry.