ERDC labs form team to tackle climate change

U.S. ARMY ENGINEER RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CENTER
Published July 8, 2021
Updated: July 8, 2021
Engineers from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, test non-destructive sustainable concrete materials at ERDC’s field exposure site at Treat Island, Maine.

Engineers from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, test non-destructive sustainable concrete materials at ERDC’s field exposure site at Treat Island, Maine.

Engineers from the U.S. Army's Engineer Research and Development Center’s Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, fabricate concrete slabs and overlays using sustainable concrete materials.

Engineers from the U.S. Army's Engineer Research and Development Center’s Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, fabricate concrete slabs and overlays using sustainable concrete materials.

HANOVER, NH – In response to a presidential executive order detailing the intensifying effects of climate change and the global shift away from carbon-intensive energy sources, multiple laboratories from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) are combining their expertise to take on climatic variations. 

The newly formed group is called a “tiger team,” which is a team created to handle an important and expedient problem quickly. The goal of this tiger team is to understand the best ways to address climate change at home and abroad. 

“We’ve been working very strongly as a team to bring The Power of ERDC to this crisis,” said Dr. Justin Berman, Associate Technical Director at ERDC’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). “Part of our focus is to help our peers throughout the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) understand the research and development projects and programs available to tackle this problem, and that we speak with one voice on climate change.”

According to “Executive Order on Climate-Related Financial Risks,” published May 20, 2021, “the intensifying impacts of climate change present physical risk to assets, publicly traded securities, private investments and companies — such as increased extreme weather risk leading to supply chain disruptions.” 

The broad nature of USACE missions and support to the nation has enabled ERDC to play a role in adapting and mitigating impacts related to climate change. Adaptation addresses the impacts of current or expected effects of climate change. Mitigation actions reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Nearly eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the process of using energy to develop construction materials, such as concrete. The ERDC Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory (GSL) is researching new, more energy efficient ways of developing concrete or construction materials to reduce the greenhouse footprint on the planet.
ERDC’s GSL and Construction Engineering Research Laboratory have also been studying bio-based composite materials, such as mass timber and cross-laminated timber materials, as sustainable alternatives to conventional steel and concrete construction. The utilization of these materials has grown rapidly across the construction industry with benefits for accelerated construction and sustainability. ERDC has also studied unique military requirements related to energy consumption, expeditionary construction and force protection in order to demonstrate the application of these sustainable building materials in future military construction criteria and specifications.

“When a lot of people think about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they are thinking immediately about electric vehicles, hydro power, wind, solar or nuclear power,” said CRREL Director Dr. Joseph Corriveau, who manages the climate change tiger team. “This is another way that we can reduce greenhouse gases, so when we go to build new infrastructure, we can do it in a way that takes less energy, and therefore a reduction in greenhouse gases.”

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been conducting research and utilizing sustainable approaches on construction materials, including concrete, since the mid-1900s,” said Dr. Robert Moser, GSL Senior Scientific Technical Manager for Materials and Structures. 

“In the last decade, the ERDC has supported multiple research and development efforts in response to the growing drivers for climate change mitigation and awareness of the significant carbon footprint that the construction industry and in particular, cementitious building materials like concrete have,” Moser said. “ERDC has conducted collaborative research on sustainable alternative cementitious materials jointly with interagency partners including the Department of Transportation and Department of Energy along with industry and academic collaborators.”

ERDC has leveraged prior experiments on other military applications, ranging from airfield damage repairs to rapid civil works infrastructure repairs, when investigating solutions for alternative cementitious materials. These materials include variations of cementing chemistries that can reduce as much as 70% of carbon footprint, and in some cases, rely on carbonation mechanisms that can actually capture or sequester carbon dioxide as part of their chemical reaction process. 

“If we can somehow remove the carbon dioxide from construction, or mitigate it, that’s a direct contribution to climate change mitigation,” said Berman. “We have the unique opportunity, because in cold regions we often use slightly different cold-tolerant concrete formulations. We can look at some different technologies that might make mitigation of carbon dioxide more effective.”

GSL is home to experts in the development of construction materials, while CRREL is home to experts in cold and Arctic regions. In Fox, Alaska, CRREL’s Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility is used to study permafrost, a thick subsurface layer of soil that occurs chiefly in polar regions and remains frozen throughout the year. Satellite images of the upper hemisphere show that 25% of that terrain is permafrost, while Alaska itself is 85% permafrost. 

“The permafrost is thawing out, and as it thaws, any infrastructure on top of that thawing permafrost is at immense risk,” said Corriveau. “So what we’re doing with GSL is working together on ways to develop technologies so you can do construction and put infrastructure, not only on solid terrain, but also on terrain on cold regions of the planet, which are at risk of thawing out.”

Berman says CRREL is doing additional research to support the military’s efforts, such as helping the Navy better understand how sea ice is thinning. CRREL has experts in the field monitoring those changes in the ocean and simultaneous developing solutions that will aid the warfighter in traversing icy terrain.  

“We’re developing technologies that will allow the U.S. Army to do that efficiently and successfully,” said Berman. “Often that requires different technologies because the temperatures are so cold that a lot of the ways that we would do things in the lower latitudes don’t work as well in higher latitudes.”

In January 2021, the U.S. Army published a strategy entitled, “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” to address the service’s approach to Arctic regions. 
The strategy states, “the Army must understand the Arctic’s role in defending the homeland, the complicated geopolitical landscape within the context of great power competition, and how accelerated environmental change impacts future operations.”

“The strategy really contains a lot of what needs to occur in the Arctic region for us to be able to have dominance and protect the homeland,” said Berman. “Our efforts will help to address the climate crisis and investigate stabilizing forces to aid in regaining Arctic dominance.”


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