Concrete and discarded rubber tires represent two of the world’s greatest environmental hazards. Is it possible that a discovery by a team of Rice University scientists earlier this year could help curtail the impact of both?

Using the same “flash” process that the team first introduced in 2020 — i.e., giving old tires a jolt of electricity that left only carbon atoms behind — the researchers were left with turbostratic graphene, once the atoms reassembled. The solubility of this material enabled it to be incorporated into cement to produce concrete that is more environmentally friendly than its current incarnation. (Nearly all U.S. roads are comprised of asphalt concrete, a mixture of rocky aggregates and a petroleum-based binder.)

According to one estimate, the world produces 4.4 billion tons of concrete annually, though other estimates put that number as high as 10 billion. Either way, no other man-made material is used as much, and among earthly substances of all kinds its consumption is exceeded only by that of water.

That comes with a heavy environmental price, as concrete accounts for four to eight percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and soaks up 10 percent of the industrial water that is used, most of it in countries that can ill afford such profligacy. Small wonder that the headline atop a 2019 piece on The Guardian’s website described concrete as “the most destructive material on earth.”

The development by the Rice team could at least begin to address that.

“If we can use less concrete in our roads, buildings and bridges, we can eliminate some of the emissions at the very start,” one team member, chemist James Tour, told Science Daily.

The added benefit that would result from widespread implementation of this technique would be whittling away at the mountain of used tires that are a pox on the world’s landscape. Some 1 billion tires are discarded every year, and only 10 percent are recycled. 

According to a post on the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) Daily Advisor, the recycling rate in the U.S., where some 300 million tires are discarded annually, is much higher — 76 percent in 2019, down from 96 percent six years earlier. A post on the site Intelligent Living takes issue with those calculations, pointing out that they include tires that are shredded and used as tire-derived fuel (TDF), which creates environmental problems of its own.

What can be agreed upon is that tires constitute a sizable issue, whether the chemicals that comprise them is leaching into the environment or they’re taking up an outsized amount of space in landfills (and even bubbling up to the surface when buried, because of the gasses that they trap). There’s also the potential danger of fires, and the way in which tires trap water, making them a breeding ground for mosquitoes

Other recycling methods have been developed beyond creating TDF, including the creation of rubber mulch for use on playgrounds and the like, and extracting the steel, nylon and fiber and repurposing it. But the development by the team at Rice represents another promising step forward, one that can potentially combat two environmental menaces at once.