March 30, 2011

When a problem becomes a solution

It's wonderful when it happens. You have this huge problem on your hands and no idea how to deal with it. Then suddenly science points the way: your problem is the solution to another problem.

For a long time, industrial smokestacks used to shoot particulates (fine soot and dust) into the air and of course a lot of this ended up in people's lungs. New rules changed this, forcing industrial sites to collect the substance, referred to as flyash. We now collect 130 million tons of it every year. Problem is, no one had any idea what to do with it so we've been shoving it into landfills. And if you've been following the landfill situation, you know we're running out of room.

But in walks a simple solution in the form of another problem. Concrete is used to construct all sorts of things and yet it breaks down very quickly. It's always crumbling and cracking. Just walk over to anything made of concrete and check how intact it looks. It literally starts to crumble immediately after it goes up. For this reason, we spend huge amounts of money each year repairing concrete structures such as bridges and highway supports.

Enter flyash. A story at physorg today reports that flyash, when applied to the rebar within concrete structures (the metal you see within broken concrete, usually rusting), protects rebar and prevents rusting. Not only this, but when you apply flyash to concrete it makes it much, much stronger. For a year, they observed concrete coated with flyash and exposed to the elements -- there was no degradation at all. This is unheard of for concrete.

The US Environmental Agency estimates it will cost $1.3 trillion dollars to replace our deteriorating concrete infrastructure by 2020. After that date, if we have not performed the reconstruction, the country will see many more disasters like the collapse of the bridge in Michigan. But if we coat everything with flyash we won't have to pay that money again anytime soon. It will save hundreds of billions of dollars. And hey, it gets rid of the flyash.

I love when two things dovetail like this. It's beautiful.

No comments: