Claire White, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014

Five to eight percent of all human-generated carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere comes from cement factories. Sustainable alternatives exist, but their long-term durability needs to be proven.

Professor Claire White is investigating the durability of alternatives to cement, the production of which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Prior to joining Princeton in August 2013, White held a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she helped to advance the understanding of sustainable cementitious materials. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)Claire White, a new assistant professor in Princeton's Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is exploring the durability of these new materials. Recently, she received $150,000 in funding from the Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership (PEP) for her project Controlling Microcracking in Low Embodied Energy Concrete. She and her colleagues Satish Myneni, an associate professor of geosciences, and Jeffrey Fitts, a research scholar in civil and environmental engineering, will investigate the behavior of slag-based geopolymer concrete.

How will the funding from PEP support your research, and what do you hope to accomplish in this particular study?

First, I should provide some background information about the materials we study. Conventional concrete is used extensively throughout the world and is the second-most used resource after water, when measured by volume. One of the components of concrete is Portland cement powder, the production of which releases CO2. These emissions account for five to eight percent of all anthropogenic CO2 released into the atmosphere. With production of concrete expected to double over the next 50 years, there is a great need for more sustainable alternatives. One viable alternative that has emerged is alkali-activated concrete; it uses no Portland cement and CO2 emissions are 80 to 90 percent lower than conventional concrete. However, we don’t have enough existing data on the long-term performance of the material and its associated durability. There is a need for scientific research to provide these data that can subsequently guide the development of new construction standards. We will look at one durability issue in particular, called microcracking, which has been seen to occur in slag-based geopolymers when the cement binder dries.

Our industry partner in the project is Zeobond Pty Ltd, a company based in Australia. They have commercialized geopolymer concrete, and know the importance of basic science research to address industrially relevant problems. They have a lot of experience in real-world applications.

How much research is needed before industry will feel comfortable using these new materials?

Unless we address this using scientific research, the wait will be at least 50 years. The hope is with an intense amount of research, we can cut that wait time at least by half. There are now computer simulations being developed to try to predict the behavior of materials. This is a huge endeavor and we’re only just starting. Research is being performed around the world, on many different aspects of geopolymer concrete, but with the general goal of developing performance based construction standards. Only once these are developed will industry feel comfortable using a new concrete in structural applications.

What course are you teaching this semester, and what aspects of teaching do you enjoy the most?

I’m teaching CEE 364/ARC 364 Materials in Civil Engineering. It provides students with an understanding of different types of construction materials, how they behave, and why they differ. I plan to incorporate my group’s research in alkali-activated concrete into the curriculum. I’m really looking forward to interacting with students and hearing their insights. There is an energy students bring to the table that can drive us to be better teachers.

I’m also managing a new K-12 outreach initiative for the Andlinger Center. The plan is to provide opportunities for high school students to work in research groups over the summer. I may go to schools to talk about engineering, energy, and the environment. Students across all grade levels are not generally exposed to engineering, so I’d like to give them a more expansive view of the opportunities available to them.

There is an effort to encourage young women to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). How will you address this when working with high school students?

I can play a key role by reaching out to girls and acting as a role model. They may hesitate to study STEM subjects, and may be concerned about going into fields where women are underrepresented. There have been positive role models out there for me, both female and male, and I want to be one for them so they know of the rewarding STEM career opportunities in society. They can make a big difference by working towards a truly sustainable world.