What exactly is self-cleaning concrete, and how does it work?

The Jubilee Church in Rome is coated in self-cleaning cement. Image: Psidium

In recent months, a new building material that claims to both clean itself and filter pollutants out of the air around has been popping up on new buildings and infrastructure. It's one of those advances in construction technology that does actually seem, well, really good. 

As a result of its self-cleaning abilities, the concrete keeps its colour for far longer than traditional building materials, so doesn't need to be replaced so often; but it can also reduce general air pollution. Which, to be honest, sounds like a bit of a win-win. But how exactly does the magic work? And is there a catch?

How was it invented?

The technology was actually invented pretty much by accident, by Luigi Cassar, an Italian chemist at cement manufacturer Italcementi. He was trying to create a construction material which would keep a bright white colour even in polluted conditions, and hit upon a method called "photocatalysis", which uses the sun's energy to zap away dirt. 

To his surprise, when the air around the treated concrete was tested, it contained up to 80 per cent less nitrous oxide: the concrete was cleaning the air as well as itself.

How does it work? (Warning: science.)

When we clean stuff, we tend to use a substance which can break down dirt so it can be washed from the object's surface, plus a bit of energy to make sure that reaction happens. When you scrub a plate, for example, you use soap and water, plus your own elbow grease, to remove dirt. 

On the surface of self-cleaning cement, the cleaning happens without any scrubbing involved. The secret? The power of the sun.

When light and heat strikes the concrete's surface, catalysts (usually titanium oxides) use that energy to break down the dirt into molecules like oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, nitrates, and sulphates. Gases float away, while liquids or solids are left on surface to be washed away by rain. 

Through a similar process, concrete can also break down pollutants in the air around it: if a pollutant strikes the surface, the titanium oxide reacts with it in the same way.

This diagram shows a nitrogen oxide hitting the surface and being converted into a nitrate:

So what's the catch?

Other scientists have dug into the theory behind self-cleaning cement and found a few problems.

1. Eagle-eyed readers might have already worked this one out: if those new substances left on the surface of the cement are "washed away", where exactly do they go? Unfortunately, the answer is probably "into groundwater, and then rivers and lakes". This is bad news when it comes to nitrates, which cause algae blooms and in turn deplete the body of water’s oxygen levels. 

2. Researchers from Indiana University found that, while the cement does what it says on the tin in specific lab conditions, it reacts quite differently if the humidity or level of pollution is lower. In fact, they found that, in lower pollution levels, the titanium dioxide would catalyse a reaction with ammonia which actually increases nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere.

3. The kilns used to make cement actually give off large amounts of nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, which means the cement would have to be pretty effective (despite the limitations outlined above) to result in a net decrease in atmospheric nitrogen.

So in summary: yes, these compounds do a good job of keeping buildings clean and white. But only time will tell whether they're 100 per cent brilliant for the environment.



Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.