Around the world, researchers and materials scientists are seeking answers to a key question: how do you improve the environmental performance of major industries like construction, while maintaining competitiveness?
It is clear that, to support international sustainability goals, new approaches are needed — from the energy we use to the buildings we construct, but any solutions must be realistic, if they are to have a chance at success.
This is the thinking behind groundbreaking work now being conducted in materials science. Throughout history, humanity’s ability to work with and create new materials has driven social progress. Now, new advances in petrochemical-based materials have the potential to further transform the infrastructure operations landscape.
In new building projects, more than 50% of emissions are believed to be associated with construction activities, according to the World Economic Forum. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) says construction emissions need to be reduced by half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050 to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.
One potential way to tackle this challenge involves using lower-carbon materials in the construction process, which is why Aramco is pursuing partnerships with key players — including in the U.S. and China — with the aim of supporting the development and deployment of innovative non-metallic building products, which could have a lower environmental impact than conventional materials. The Aramco-affiliated nonmetallic excellence and innovation centers, NEX-USA and NEXCEL-China, are working to further advance the use of nonmetallic materials in the construction sector.
As the name suggests, non-metallics include materials, whether synthetic or natural, that do not contain metal. Our focus, at Aramco, is on materials made from hydrocarbons, which for the construction sector are durable, do not corrode and exhibit an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. They provide insulation and sound dampening properties but, perhaps more significantly, the manufacturing process releases fewer emissions than conventional construction materials, such as steel and concrete.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has found that the value chain of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — a plastic material used in construction, automobiles, medical products and other sectors — could reduce CO2 emissions by 80% to 90% percent in the U.S. by 2050, with proper policy support and the use of new technologies. We believe a similar approach should be explored and implemented across the value chains of other non-metallic products.
Demonstrating the possibilities, rebar made from Glass Fiber Reinforced Polymer (GFRP) was used in construction of Aramco’s 14.2-mile-long flood mitigation channel in Jazan, Saudi Arabia — the largest GFRP rebar project in the world.
The potential extends beyond construction. In recent years, the oil and gas industries have been using non-metallic materials for a variety of purposes — most notably in upstream pipelines. Aramco’s own pipeline and piping network now includes more than 7,456 miles of non-metallic pipes, including Reinforced Thermoplastic Pipes (RTP) and Reinforced Thermosetting Resin (RTR) pipes, which we use to transport water, oil and gas. In future, they could potentially be used to transport hydrogen.
Not only is RTP and RTR pipeline less carbon intensive than steel, it is resistant to corrosion — something that costs the global economy an estimated $2.5 trillion every year. It’s much faster to lay than steel; cuts the risks of leaking; and is easier to maintain. The Khurais RTP flowline, a job that would have taken 70 days to complete with a steel pipeline, was completed in less than two days. When looking at the total cost of ownership over a 20-year period, RTP piping is three times more cost-effective than carbon steel (NPV).
We are not the only ones to identify the benefits and, through our collaborations, we want to accelerate the rate of change — both in deployment and research.
But if a new product is to be embraced by businesses, it must first gain confidence and meet high expectations. That is why the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) has formed a non-metallic network, which includes Aramco, to support the development of standards, guidelines and conduct benchmarking among energy operators.
Unlocking New Markets
Unlocking the growth opportunities of non-metallics — which have a wide variety of potential applications worldwide — is part of the network’s long-term ambitions. As non-metallic advanced polymeric materials offer several advantages over metallic materials, their potential goes beyond the oil and gas and construction sectors.
In fact, we anticipate that demand from the packaging, automotive, and renewable energy sectors will grow significantly. For example, if the cost of carbon fiber — the material used to build everything from Formula One cars to golf clubs — can be reduced, it could kick-start wholesale change. Incredibly light yet strong, carbon fiber could be suitable for a wide array of commercial applications, from composite pipes in harsh environments to wind turbine blades.
We therefore encourage global business to adopt a progressive approach, as we work to unlock the potential of this exciting realm of materials science.
Khalid Al Qahtani is chief engineer and corporate innovation board chairman, Saudi Aramco