Making buildings from industrial waste

Professor Elsa Olivetti's lab looks at the huge quantities of industrial waste generated in the manufacturing industry, in the hopes of finding useful ways to reconstitute and reuse this waste for building. By applying her understanding of materials on a molecular level, she can propose new ways these byproducts might be integrated into usable building materials to make the industry more efficient.

During a Tata Center project launched in northern India, Olivetti and her team noticed that the pulp plants were powered by sugar cane and rice husks, which were burned to generate energy. The byproduct of these burnt plant materials was something called “biomass ash,” which has a high, reactive silica content. This means that it can bind with other materials to produce a strong, cement-like structure. They were able to demonstrate that this ash, which had previously been dumped as waste, could actually be turned into cheap building material, providing an economic and environmental benefit to the local community.