Concrete made from sugarcane residue

The University of East London’s Master of Architecture and Sustainability Research Institute (SRI), with the support of Tate & Lyle Sugars, has developed a construction material made from sugarcane waste.

Armor Gutierrez Rivas, Senior Lecturer in Architecture  at UEL, said, “Sugarcane is the world’s largest crop by production volume – almost two billion tonnes of sugarcane are produced worldwide yearly, resulting in six hundred million tonnes of fibre bagasse as by-product. Using a bio-waste-based product like Sugarcrete, we could replace the traditional brick industry, offering potential saving of 1,08 billion tonnes of CO2, 3 percent of the global CO2 production. The built environment generates 40 percent of annual global CO2 emissions. Despite the global aim to hold global warning to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it is estimated that our global built floor areas will double by 2060. Therefore, we must develop alternatives to current construction methods.”

Sugarcrete is a sustainable, ultra-low carbon construction alternative to existing high carbon materials. An application, Sugarcrete Slab has been prototyped in partnership with architecture firm Grimshaw.

Created by mixing the sugarcane fibres left over after sugar sap extraction, known as bagasse, with bespoke sand-mineral binders, Sugarcrete has the potential to be used and re-used in new or existing structures, replacing both brick and concrete.

Developed over two years, testing by UEL’s SRI showed that using Sugarcrete, when compared to concrete production, reduces curing time to one week (a process that takes up to 28 days), is four to five times lighter than concrete block, only uses 15 to 20 percent of its carbon footprint, and provides substantially reduced costs.

As part of the research programme UEL developed a prototype floor slab made from sugarcane derived from Sugarcrete and used advanced digital modelling and robotic fabrication to test the viability of the ultra-low carbon materials in construction. Grimshaw’s previous research into interlocking geometries – using the form of the building components to create self-supporting assemblies – allowed SugarcreteT to be deployed as a demountable, reusable, fire-resistant composite floor slab which can be applied, disassembled, or extended in new or existing structures.

“Reducing steel, combined with the use of sugar cane fibres of different densities in a modular system allows the slab assembly to avoid the potential risks of cracking which occur with traditional concrete in extreme situations, absorbing the effects of seismic shock – a characteristic vital in earthquake-prone regions where sugar cane is cultivated,” said Elena Shilova, architect at Grimshaw.  

As part of the project, and working with Tate & Lyle Sugars, the team has started to identify sites in the sugar-producing Global South, which have the opportunity to adopt Sugarcrete. The intention is to work with local NGOs to test a prototype. 

Alan Chandler, Co-Director of the UEL’s SRI, said, “By partnering locally, the production potential in each situation is evaluated, defining whether cement-use reduction can be made using locally created Sugarcrete, or whether there is the capacity to grow export markets for raw material or finished products to benefit GDP. This is particularly relevant for sugar-producing communities where construction materials are frequently imported, environmentally poor performing, high cost and high carbon – for example, a concrete block in Cuba, a major sugar-producing country costs US$3 – an average monthly salary is $148.”