The construction industry is one of the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions which leads to global warming and climate change. However, scientists have come up with a groundbreaking solution to make building materials more environmentally friendly by storing carbon dioxide in them. A recent study presented at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society has shown promising results in the development of a composite decking material that not only stores more carbon dioxide than is emitted during its manufacturing process but is also cost-effective and meets building codes.

Traditional construction materials contribute significantly to energy-related carbon emissions, with buildings alone responsible for 11% of these emissions globally. While sustainable alternatives like recycled or plant-derived products have been explored, they often come with a higher price tag or cannot match the properties of traditional materials in terms of strength and durability. This is where carbon-negative composites come into play, offering a viable solution to offset carbon emissions in the construction industry.

The Innovation Behind Carbon-Negative Composite Decking

Composite decking, a multibillion-dollar industry, is a popular choice for outdoor structures due to its durability and resistance to UV radiation. Typically made from a combination of wood chips or sawdust and plastic, such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE), composite decking can be enhanced by using fillers that would otherwise be considered waste products. Researchers have successfully incorporated low-quality brown coal and lignin, a byproduct of papermaking, as fillers in decking composites by adding ester functional groups to their surfaces.

The Science Behind It All

By surface-treating lignin and coal particles with esters, which are a captured form of carbon dioxide, the research team has achieved heightened environmental friendliness in the composite material. Through a chemical reaction that bonds carbon dioxide to phenol groups abundant in lignin and coal, the composite decking material now contains 2–5% carbon dioxide by weight. The resulting composites, manufactured using a specialized friction extrusion process, offer both mechanical performance and environmental sustainability that meet international building standards.

The carbon-negative composite decking developed by the research team not only outperforms traditional composite boards in terms of CO2 storage but also comes with a price advantage. These innovative boards are 18% cheaper to produce than standard decking composites, offering a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative for builders. If widely adopted, the researchers estimate that replacing all decking in the U.S. with their carbon-negative composites could sequester 250,000 tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to the emissions of 54,000 cars.

Future Outlook

As the researchers continue to refine their composite formulations and test new properties, the potential for carbon-negative composites extends beyond decking materials. The team envisions a range of building supplies, from fencing to siding, being developed using the same carbon-negative technology. With plans to commercialize their decking boards in the near future, the prospect of carbon-negative building materials being readily available to consumers is closer than ever.


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