Using bio-based building materials to capture carbon in construction

Using bio-based building materials to capture carbon in construction

How Thomas Robinson’s company Adaptavate is meeting the challenge of carbon emissions in the construction industry

The building industry is a major contributor to key climate emissions. Nearly 40% of global carbon emissions come from the built environment and construction sector, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. It’s a challenging issue: we need fresh infrastructure, from new homes to offices and workplaces. And yet every new building contributes to one of the most pressing issues in the world. A change is required, according to the International Energy Agency: direct building CO2 emissions must fall by 50% by 2030.

There is no simple answer, given the complexity of contributing factors in emissions in the sector, but Thomas Robinson believes he has a solution to address part of the problem. “We aim to be at the forefront of the development of carbon-negative building materials,” he says. Robinson is the founder of Adaptavate, a bio-composite materials manufacturer bringing to the market a low-carbon, breathable alternative to the third most used building material in the world after concrete and steel: plasterboard. 

Adaptavate’s breathable plasterboard is made from agricultural waste, the use of which can help reduce the emissions that come from traditional plasterboard (which generates 3.5% of the sector’s annual emissions, in the UK). The board also captures carbon from the atmosphere, within hours rather than the years it can take to do so by other means. The carbon capture comes in the curing of the plaster slurry that sits between two pieces of paper and which hardens as it absorbs carbon dioxide.

“Our products are installed in exactly the same way as standard wallboards,” explains Robinson, who truly believes that they are healthier for people and for our planet. According to him, they are a potentially vital component in future construction. “Before long, we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we won’t be able to build in the same way that we have been doing.”

Which is why it’s important for Adaptavate to act now. The products they make help builders construct buildings in the same way, while reducing carbon in the built environment and increasing the circularity of the materials used. But it’s a challenge to bring change to an inherently slow-to-adapt industry. “You’ve got a conservative market nature that’s highly certified and regulated,” he points out. “On top of that, there are high capital requirements to scale and to be price competitive, and a price-sensitive market.”

That’s not the only stumbling block Robinson had to overcome. Until about six months or a year ago, a sustainable building material was not taken seriously because the industry didn’t want to acknowledge the scale of the issue and how to fix it. However, that’s changed, and quickly, as the industry has now woken up to the problem they face. The sector is at a tipping point, asserts Robinson. “Market conditions are good, the technology has matured, capital is becoming available for the industrial process and the deployment of that,” he explains. 

Yet far from just sticking around, Robinson has ambitious plans for Adaptavate. The company currently offers three plaster products on the market available in the UK through major builders’ merchants. “That tested our value proposition against the market.” Yet, he has plans to expand the range further.

That promise has attracted funders: Earlier this year Adaptavate gained £2.2 million in funding that will go towards helping build a pilot production facility in Bristol where new plasterboard technologies can be trialled and tested. The pilot facility will also aid to scale up Adaptavate’s carbon-capture technology from lab scale to prototype scale. The company’s accelerated absorption of carbon dioxide into the plasterboards turns the product from a small bit above carbon neutrality to become an absolute carbon-zero product.

The company is well-positioned to take advantage of the shift in perceptions of climate credentials, and the awareness of the importance of putting sustainability at the core of building. “Some of the biggest house builders are being financially incentivised to adapt to the market of tomorrow, because business is not all about pounds and pence today, it’s also about how we make pounds and pence tomorrow.”

Biography / Key highlights

2008 BSc in physical geography at Lancaster University

2014 Masters in Sustainable Architecture at the Centre for Alternative Technology

2014 Adaptavate founded

2014 Adaptavate are UK winner of the Climate KIC CleanLaunchpad competition

2015 Green Alley Award

2016 Shell LiveWIRE 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year award

2022 Adaptavate joins The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products

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