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Net-zero building materials in the pipeline

Ongoing shortages of much-needed building materials have spurred on innovators to find more sustainable alternatives and support the Government’s UK target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. To mark London Climate Action Week (25th June – 3rd July 2022), this article from Dr Joanna Thurston at Withers & Rogers highlights some of the most promising innovations in the pipeline.

Among the products most keenly sought after by builders and property developers in 2021 were cement, timber and steel. However, earlier this year, the Construction Leadership Council reported that supply shortages were beginning to ease and the disruption caused by the shortage of HGV drivers was also showing signs of improvement. Then a sharp rise in energy prices, exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis, forced up the cost of steel, cement, glass and other energy-intensive products and recent data released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) shows that materials prices rose by 21.9% in the first quarter of the year.

With further rises in energy prices expected, the construction industry urgently needs to identify sustainable alternatives to traditional building materials, which are easier to source and more energy-efficient to produce. Innovators are focusing their research and development activity in two main areas – building materials compositions and renovation technologies. To earn a commercial reward for their investment in innovation, it is important that they secure patent protection on route to market.

There are several companies that are leading the field when it comes to developing sustainable building materials for use when renovating buildings. For example, Saint-Gobain has come up with a new type of gypsum board, protected by a pending patent application EP3792232, which is stronger and requires the use of less timber to construct internal walls. The panels used to make the board are strong enough to form an internal wall, without the need for a wooden frame. This means less cost is incurred transporting timber to the site.

US company, Prometheus Materials, has recently secured funding to further R&D programmes, which are focused on decarbonising the way that building materials are made. In particular, the company is developing an innovative ‘bio-cement’ that uses biological rather than chemical means to produce a strong binding agent for aggregate. Once market-ready, the product could provide a sustainable alternative to carbon-intensive Portland cement. In the next couple of years, the company is planning to start producing a range of sustainable solutions including a ready-mix biocomposite, as an alternative to cement-based ready-mix concrete, and a range of precast biocomposite products, including roof tiles and wall panels.

Areas such as road construction are also a focus for innovators of sustainable solutions. MacRebur, the plastic road company, has developed a novel material (patent number US10808365), which is made from waste plastic. As well as protecting the environment by repurposing unwanted plastic, this patented technology reduces the amount of bitumen needed for road surfacing materials.

A research paper has been published recently, which considers the potential for plastic bricks, made from waste plastic. Specifically, the research examined how well the plastic bricks performed in terms of their strength, water permeability, efflorescence, roughness and conductivity, depending on the plastic-to-sand ratio of each brick sample. Patents have begun to emerge in this space, with much of the research being conducted with a view to using the bricks to create quick to assemble eco buildings for the developing world. An example is CN107032683 which relates to an environmentally-friendly brick which can be made with low energy input.

At a time when demand for sustainable building products is growing, patent protection gives innovative businesses of all sizes an exclusive right to market their product for the next 20 years. This will allow them to recoup the cost of their R&D investment and optimise profits, without the risk that their technologies will be copied by competitors. In the UK, a granted UK patent can also enable innovators to reduce their Corporation Tax liability by leveraging the Patent Box regime.

Dr Joanna Thurston is a partner and patent attorney, specialising in cleantech innovation, at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.