From Agro-Waste to Sustainable Structures: Concrete Alternatives Made from Sugarcane

Finding effective and valuable solutions for agricultural waste management has been an inspiring challenge for researchers. By-products from monocultures, such as residues from soybean production, corn cobs, straw, sunflower seeds, and cellulose, are often destined for soil composting, used as animal feed, or even converted into energy in order to reduce waste and mitigate the environmental impacts associated with agricultural activities. Sugarcane production, for example, generates a significant amount of by-products, totaling about 600 million tons of bagasse fiber waste from an annual production of two billion tons of sugarcane. This by-product has a promising potential to replace energy-intensive building systems, such as concrete and brick, by providing building materials that combine sustainability and structural efficiency.

With this perspective in mind, the University of East London (UEL), in partnership with Grimshaw Architects and manufacturer Tate & Lyle Sugar, has developed an innovative building material called Sugarcrete™. The aim of the project is to explore sustainable building solutions by recycling biological by-products from sugarcane, which in turn reduces carbon emissions in the construction industry – all while prioritizing social and environmental sustainability during the production and implementation of these building materials.

"The main innovation of Sugarcrete™ is to challenge the established misconception that biomaterials have low structural performance and create a material with enough structural strength to be self-supporting," says Armor Gutierrez Rivas, Senior Architecture Professor. As he explains, "The project began as part of research informed by teaching undertaken as part of the Master of Architecture at the University of East London (UEL), which is concerned with the use of innovative building solutions that address local issues. While working on redevelopment proposals in Silver Town at the Royal Docks, we engaged with the existing industrial fabric of the area and began to look at by-products as building alternatives, including by-products from Tate & Lyle's sugar production. Initial explorations were tested and optimized using our state-of-the-art facilities at the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) and later implemented as Sugarcrete™ Slab in creative partnership with architects from Grimshaw and engineers from AKT II."

Essentially, Sugarcrete™ is created by combining bagasse with mineral binders. The final product is lighter than traditional brick and only has 15-20% of its carbon footprint. Using a fraction of 30% of global bagasse production, Sugarcrete™ would have the potential to completely replace the traditional brick industry, resulting in savings of 1.08 billion tons of CO2 (equivalent to 3% of global carbon dioxide production). Sugarcane has a fast growth rate and is up to 50 times more efficient than forestry when it comes to converting CO2 into biomass, making it a high-priority material for achieving net zero emissions. In addition, the material has good structural characteristics and is insulating, fire resistant, easy to use with unskilled labor, and has a simplified supply chain due to its simple composition.

From Agro-Waste to Sustainable Structures: Concrete Alternatives Made from Sugarcane - Image 19 of 25
Courtesy of Sugarcrete™

According to Bamdad Ayati, Research Fellow at the Sustainability Research Institute of UEL, "The Sugarcrete™ production process is quite simple and resembles conventional concrete block manufacturing. It involves materials proportioning, mixing, casting, and drying/curing. The binder components are mineral based and vastly available in places with an established sugar industry. Like other construction materials, large-scale production challenges are associated with variability in the raw feedstock in terms of moisture content, particle size, unwanted impurities, etc."

From Agro-Waste to Sustainable Structures: Concrete Alternatives Made from Sugarcane - Image 3 of 25
Courtesy of Sugarcrete™

The development team, in collaboration with global architecture firm Grimshaw, incorporated the concept of interlocking geometries to explore new possibilities for the product's application. Invented and patented in 1699 by the French engineer Joseph Abeille, the interlocking method was revisited by Amédée François Frézier in 1739 and by Truchet's Traité de Stéréotomie in 1737. It was subsequently developed in the 21st century by various research teams, including Yuri Estrin, Arcady Dyskin and Giuseppe Falacara; Michael Weizmann; and AAU Anastas architects along with engineer Maurizio Brocato. The concept was applied to Sugarcrete to create demountable, reusable, and fire-resistant composite floor slabs, referred to as 'Sugarcrete™ Slabs'. These are part of a series of prototypes aimed at developing innovative construction solutions that can be implemented, dismantled, or extended in new and existing structures.

The project uses an interlocking system as a kit of parts that allows large structures to be built using small, discrete components without the need for mortar. Due to its reciprocity and distributed force network, this system outperforms traditional monolithic assemblies. The casting process is employed to minimize material waste and allows for formwork reuse and simplified mass production, as well as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) opportunities.

From Agro-Waste to Sustainable Structures: Concrete Alternatives Made from Sugarcane - Image 16 of 25
Courtesy of Sugarcrete™

According to Elena Shilova, Architect, Grimshaw & Andy Watts Director of Design Technology, the project used a complete digital toolchain for manufacturing, integrating material computation, parametric design, and robotic manufacturing. The process began by inputting material properties into a digital carbon analysis tool to assess the respective footprint. A generative model was then employed to transform 2D patterns into 3D geometries of interconnected components. Using a 6-axis robotic arm, the digital model generated toolpaths to fabricate the molds (after curing and 3D scanning, any deviations in the components were incorporated back into the digital model). An augmented reality assist set was used to test the build sequence, leading to large-scale assembly. After assembly, the architectural element was scanned three-dimensionally again for calibration. This digital toolchain allows the creation of a flexible and customizable kit-of-parts system using this sustainable material, integrating the digital and physical worlds and adopting the unique characteristics of natural materials. As Elena points out, "We believe that technology can do just that: deploy a natural material, with its unevenness, imperfection, and crafted nature through the power of computational design and advanced fabrication. In return, by enabling the local material, we enable the people and the local community, too: because the technological advancement should not be exclusive to glass-and-concrete, expensive architecture."

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Courtesy of Sugarcrete™
From Agro-Waste to Sustainable Structures: Concrete Alternatives Made from Sugarcane - Image 22 of 25
Courtesy of Sugarcrete™

The Sugarcrete™ research was intentionally published without a patent to encourage local producers to adopt the material and reduce cement use. As Alan Chandler, Co-Director Sustainability Research Institute at UEL states, "In partnership with Tate & Lyle Sugars we did undertake patent searches and established where bagasse in construction material development had been patented and what our scope of operation was. We concluded that our work was original, and we could file a patent, but collectively decided not to. This was primarily about wanting to share our insights with, rather than controlling the produce of the producer communities in the Global South. Our decision not to patent was ethical rather than financial."

Indeed, ethical considerations around innovation and the supply chain were fundamental to the project's design, which aims to establish viable, fair, and robust supply chains that ensure equitable outcomes for both producers and users. In doing so, it aims to address not only carbon reduction but also social and environmental sustainability. The team has also been identifying sites in sugar-producing regions of the Global South to further expand implementation opportunities and plans to test the prototype in real-world scenarios soon.

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Courtesy of Sugarcrete™
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Courtesy of Sugarcrete™

Through careful and conscious development, Sugarcrete brings us optimism about the future scenario of the construction industry, whose negative environmental impact is significant and requires effective (and quick) action. As Alan Chandler explains, "The ethos of materials innovation to address the climate crisis must design the supply chain as well as the performance specification. Carbon is at the top of the list; we should also mention toxicity in relation to health and safety in construction processes. The use of bagasse and other fast-growing biological products in combination with inert mineral binders, not only for insulation layers but also for structure, is beginning to eliminate chemically maligned and fossil fuel-based product lines from construction sites. This directly addresses the safety priorities of the Building Safety Act during the manufacturing, construction, demolition, reuse, and disposal sequences." Elena Shilova concludes by saying that "Looking across industries, we can find many opportunities for local and sustainable materials and unused agricultural/industrial by-products. These materials, which may not look glamorous and elegant, are the new high-tech in the face of the climate emergency. The climate emergency calls for a new architectural language for materials like Sugarcrete™, to really embrace their potential and celebrate them, without coating and hiding them for a "modern" look. This new architectural language and change in mindset will ultimately make natural materials attractive to customers, increasing demand and lowering price due to economies of scale."

Recognition of Sugarcrete™'s innovative approach to sustainable construction led to its nomination for this year's Earthshot award, known as the largest global award for the environment, which celebrates innovative solutions that have a positive impact on the planet. To follow the progress of the project and for more information, visit the official website.

Credit list

Material Concept, Design and Fabrication:
Armor Gutierrez Rivas, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, UEL
Alan Chandler, Co-Director Sustainability Research Institute, UEL
Bamdad Ayati, Sustainability Research Institute Research Fellow, UEL
Elena Shilova, Architect, Grimshaw
John Kerr - Vice President, Research & Technology, Tate & Lyle Sugars
Andy Watts, Director of Design Technology, Grimshaw
Paris Nikitidis - XR Developer, Grimshaw
Philip Singer - Computational Design Specialist, Grimshaw
Georgios Tsakiridis - Consultant, Grimshaw
Paolo Vimercati - Consultant, Grimshaw
Robert Sims - Model shop Manager, Grimshaw
Paul Nichols – FabLab Manager, UEL
Dr David Tann - Dean of School of Architecture, Computing & Engineering, UEL
Carl Callaghan - Head of Department of Architecture and Visual Arts, UEL
Alex Scott-Whilby - Architecture & Physical Design Cluster Lead, UEL
Nicolo Bencini - Senior Structural Engineer, AKTIISky Henley - Computational Design Specialist
UEL Master of Architecture Students Team:
Faith Omowunmi Ogundare; Busra Ciftci; Amy Gillespie; Hinal Arvindkumar Patel; Rova Taha; Dodangodagamage Kawan Roger Ranasinghe; Manoj Sai Ganji; Mohan Ukabhai Dungrani; Anca-Madalina Borda; Alina Klimenteva; Rashmi Madagamage Gunathilaka; Orseer Isreal Gbashah; Mahmoud Sayed Abdellattif; Mert Manas Erten; Hidayati Yazmin Binti Abdul Halim; Oluchukwu Judith Obiejesi; Svetoslav Georgie Slav; Mihriban Ustun
Jude Adoasi
Editing & filming:
Louis Bird and Ellie Saunders, Grimshaw

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Cite: Eduardo Souza. "From Agro-Waste to Sustainable Structures: Concrete Alternatives Made from Sugarcane" 25 May 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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