Since ancient Rome, concrete has made up the literal building blocks of society. Producing it requires pulling natural resources such as gravel, sand, limestone, and other raw materials. In recent years, the rapid increase in construction has required more concrete, taking a toll on the environment. With no signs of slowing down, the question remains how construction can continue its upward trajectory while preserving the planet.

However, graphene could very well serve as a supplement for concrete, substantially reducing the amount of waste concrete produces. A single layer of carbon atoms formed in a hexagonal lattice, graphene is stronger than steel, extremely flexible, and one of the thinnest materials in existence. These properties and more make it an exciting contender for concrete production, and could provide a strong solution to society’s challenges.

Each year, concrete’s production takes from billions of tons of gravel and sand from rivers and beaches. When these environments are stripped (often illegally), they can change irreparably. Water flow can become faster, flooding into farmlands and cities. It also makes beach communities more likely to experience storm damage without sand as its absorption for heavy rain. Climate change increases this risk. Studies are showing that we are using sediment faster than nature is providing it. The need for a solution has never been more urgent.

Researchers at Exeter University are experimenting with adding graphene to concrete. The result is a material that is four times more water resistant than regular concrete. Its water resistance allows for construction in normally hard-to-reach areas. Concrete made from graphene is twice as strong as regular concrete. Its increased durability would make future buildings more resistant to earthquakes and other strains. While using graphene, raw materials needed to make concrete are decreased by about 50%.

Using graphene in concrete can also open up doors for additional nanomaterials to be included in construction, leading to more innovation. When structures are more stable with graphene concrete, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, ultimately helping to curb climate change.

Though the possibilities for graphene in concrete are exciting as they are necessary, implementing changes will likely not happen fast. The construction industry is the largest consumer of natural resources, so changing its ways will require time and resources on both the state and local level. Graphene in concrete could reduce needed raw materials by up to 40%. Relying on graphene concrete would lessen the temptation for contractors to cut corners, making for safer buildings.

Graphene is just one of several ways to reduce the heavy reliance on natural resources for concrete. Another way is through 3D printing. With continued research and community engagement, the future for concrete looks brighter thanks to science and technology. Perhaps in the future, we could see graphene replace concrete entirely.