The engineering of new materials is one of the key aspects of sustainability-oriented research. One of the biggest and hardest challenges humanity has to face in the long term is the disposal of non-biodegradable materials, which make up the vast majority of artificial products. Contrary to popular belief, it is not only single-use plastics that are unsustainable and make up landfill waste that takes centuries to decay: it is also construction materials and components used in many industries. Italian researchers are now trying to provide viable alternatives for the construction industry and agriculture, making sustainable fertilisers, detergents, mortar, bricks, and plaster from the ash of Etna’s lava.
The floor is lava. The walls too
We have long known that lava ash is an extremely rich and useful material, but it can also turn into an environmental problem. In Sicily, for instance, the ashes that cover the whole area around Mount Etna after each eruption have a strong negative impact on the environment. The Reucet Project aims to transform an age-long problem into an environmental engineering solution. A group of researchers is working on the possibility of using volcanic ash to make mortar, concrete, plaster, bricks, and materials that can be used to absorb pollution from the atmosphere.
Lighter and sustainable
The ceramic materials built from volcanic ash appear to be considerably lighter than their traditional equivalents, which makes them easier and cheaper to transport and install. They are also much more sustainable, in that they originate from raw materials that would normally need to be disposed of, thus creating a unique example of circular economy in which mankind endeavours to reuse and recycle nature’s own “waste”. Volcanic ash also appears to work excellently in the creation of coating materials and insulating panels. As a construction material, lava ash is not without its limits and is definitely not a panacea, but researchers believe it to be adaptable to a variety of usages.
The importance of sustainable development
Investing in research and sustainability is essential: no country, no society, and no industry can afford to ignore the consequence of long-term unsustainable practices. While some industries tend to be put in the spotlight more than others, when it comes to debating sustainability issues, there is really no branch of human activity to which this concept does not apply. We need to strive for sustainable development and civil engineering and research are key elements in achieving this goal. Luckily, an increasing number of companies and institutions are showing an interest in sustainable practices and sustainable innovation – as shown by the success of this year’s edition of GECO, the first virtual trade show focusing exclusively on sustainability. If this movement keeps growing, then we might be in with a chance of beating global warming and decontaminating our planet.