A Dubai-based architect binary is looking to move away from traditional building practices with alternative cement that has been designed in the UAE’s salt flats and made from tough waste materials.
It was inspired by the mineral-rich sabkha in the UAE – salt flats that are part of the country’s wetlands. “It is a huge area … it is often ignored,” Al-Awar told CNN.
Ancient fortifications of Shali in the Siwa Oasis, Egypt. credit: Chris Bouroncle / AFP / AFP via Getty Images
Close-up of the Sabkha apartment in the Emirates. The apartments contain microbes which are “living environment” [that] In fact, it absorbs carbon dioxide, “says engineer Wael Al-Awar. credit: Courtesy of Emirati National Pavilion La Biennale Di Venezia / waiwai
The brine contains magnesium minerals. Kamal Celik, Assistant Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi and part of a team at the university’s AMBER Laboratory, extracted the magnesium compound from the liquid and used it in the cement industry.
Celik says that the cement was poured into blocks, then put into the carbon dioxide chamber to lay it – an innovation that speeds up the production process. The cement was tested in the United Arab Emirates before being sent to Japan, where the blocks were subjected to more rigidity and hardness tests. In addition, an algorithm was developed to calculate the safety of the blocks if they were used in construction, Mika Araki, structural designer at the University of Tokyo, told CNN.
The prefabricated blocks can be used to build a one-storey building “tomorrow,” says al-Awar, but he and Teramoto hope to develop the product for use in multi-storey buildings.
Al-Awar claims that cement based on magnesium can “lead to the equivalent of Portland cement”, which uses calcium carbonate as a raw ingredient and is the cement most used in making concrete.
However, magnesium cement has its limitations. As a salt-based product, it can corrode rebar, although reinforcement with other materials is possible.
Advance blocks of brine-based cement created by al-Awar, Terramoto and academic collaborators credit: Courtesy of the UAE National Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia, photographed by Suhail Abdul Latif
Precast blocks are treated in a carbon dioxide chamber, where cement requires a higher proportion of carbon dioxide to solidify enough than is present in the atmosphere. credit: Courtesy of the Emirati national pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia, portrayed by Dina Al-Khatib
Professor John Profess is Deputy Head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield, UK, and is not affiliated with the project. Salt-based cement, he says, is a “really good idea”, explaining globally that only a third of cement is used in reinforced concrete.
He adds: “This saline solution is a pain that must be eliminated.” “They take local waste and do amazing things with it. I think there’s really cool cooperation there.”
Al-Awar says he and Teramoto are driven by the desire to build more sustainable and eco-friendly architecture. “Given the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, and all these alarms that have been ringing for many years, it is our duty – it is our responsibility – to act,” he says.
Kenichi Teramoto and Wael Al Awar, co-trustees of the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. credit: Courtesy of the Emirati National Pavilion
In May 2021, Alawar and Teramoto will be the national pavilion of the United Arab Emirates at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, where alternative cement will be displayed at the “Wetlands” exhibition. The wing will be made of magnesium-based cement, although Silik says the cement will not be based on brine because it is not yet ready for increased production.
“The search is still early,” says Al-Awar. “The natural process of trial, trial and error must go through to get to somewhere. But we are very optimistic.”