New construction materials for the Arctic: Five innovative Polar concepts
Eco-friendly solutions for challenging problems24 november 2023
The Arctic is harsh on buildings and roads—extreme temperature fluctuations, humidity, wind and unstable soils significantly hinder the construction and operation of any major structures. Logistics is equally unforgiving. For example, to construct a school in Anadyr, support piles have to be transported from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok by freight train, and then by ship to the capital of Chukotka. The final cost of constructing a building ends up being significantly higher than on the mainland, as are the labour costs involved in its construction. However, this doesn't mean that the Arctic should be left without schools, houses and roads—while the state is setting up a unified northern supply system to significantly reduce delivery costs, scientists are developing new industrial materials that will make construction in the Arctic more affordable and simpler.
Concept No. 1. Home of molten sulfur
A significant amount of sulfur has accumulated in the Arctic—waste from petroleum production is currently being stored in special facilities. A portion of these reserves are used for the production of sulfuric acid, sulfate fertilisers and animal feed additives, but the majority remains stored in warehouses for years. Researchers from the Russian Arctic Research Centre have developed a unique high-strength concrete by incorporating sulfur and turpentine-containing waste from deep wood processing. In contrast to a typical concrete mixture made of water, cement, sand and crushed stone, the experimenters replaced water with molten sulfur and a plastic modifier in 'sulfur concrete.' This type of concrete gains strength almost instantly and is not affected by temperature conditions: while regular concrete requires about 28 days without extreme temperatures to gain strength, sulfur concrete reaches its operational characteristics almost immediately. It can be poured in conditions as extreme as –50°C, stormy winds and high humidity.
An added advantage of this invention is the efficient use of waste that has accumulated over years of industrial exploitation of the Arctic. Sulfur, once a dead weight on the balance sheets of mining companies and a concern for environmentalists, will transform into a valuable resource that can be used effectively.
Concept No. 2. Flexible sandwich panels serving humanity
The Moscow-based company Technopolis Moscow has developed and implemented a new type of construction material specifically designed for quick construction in Arctic conditions. A 'flexible sandwich panel' consists of two PVC tent layers with insulation sandwiched in between. A single panel of this type covers approximately 200 sq m, is relatively easy to install and allows buildings to be assembled almost like a child's building set. The company has already shipped about 17,000 sq m of these new panels to the Far North, which are being used to construct training centres, warehouses and gas storage facilities.
This invention by Moscow's engineers can withstand temperatures as low as –50°C, strong winds and has excellent waterproofing properties. Moreover, it is 30% cheaper than its metal equivalents and much simpler to install. Flexible sandwich panels are delivered to the site already assembled—they just need to be mounted on the frame, and the building is ready.
Concept No. 3. Advanced thermal insulation
A consortium of companies, including Mustovo, Regent Baltika and BALTMASH, has developed a new thermal insulation material for Arctic homes and ships. This material is based on a special polyurethane foam and other components that form a complex composite structure. By using modern materials and a unique geometric structure of the panels, engineers and scientists have managed to eliminate 'cold bridges,' achieve lightweight insulation and simplify installation. With this new material, an enclosed thermal circuit can be created in a dwelling, house or ship superstructure in just a few days by workers who are untrained but motivated by the Arctic cold. The new thermal insulation is produced by sequentially spraying layers, a process similar to 3D printing technology.
The consortium is currently patenting its invention and establishing a production line for mass manufacturing. The developers of the technology aimed to create a 'Lego set for insulation' that could be used in both new and existing structures.
Concept No. 4. Saponite additive for walls
Near the Pomorie settlement in the Arkhangelsk Region, there is one of the largest Arctic diamond deposits, named after M. V. Lomonosov. Besides gemstones, it is composed of 60–70% sticky saponite clays, which during quarrying must be dispatched to what are referred to as 'beaches.' Essentially, these are solid waste repositories, which aren't particularly favoured by environmentalists who express concerns about the impact on the delicate ecological balance of Primorsky Territory. Researchers from the Northern Federal University have stepped in to assist nature, proposing to manufacture a special binding additive from saponite clays that enhances the durability of concrete.
Arkady Eisenstadt, chief researcher of the Department of Targeted Scientific Programmes of NArFU, Ph.D., notes that in the Arctic, concrete must withstand about 150 freeze-thaw cycles and a load of 15 to 25 conventional tons. 'For such concretes (from B15 to B25), a 7% addition of activated modified saponite is sufficient to ensure the required strength and frost resistance,' stated the scientist in a comment to the Russian Arctic Research Centre. Besides creating additives, new construction materials can also be developed using saponite clay—NArFU is actively pursuing this, conducting an increasing number of experiments.
Concept No. 5. Soil concrete made from granulated slag
One of the key prerequisites for the anticipated development of the AZRF economy is ensuring logistics, which cannot be achieved without building roads and fortifying river banks and ports. However, the Polar Region is actively resisting attempts at conquest—either the permafrost thaws or floods erode the shores. In an effort to somewhat tame nature's reluctance to remain 'within the bounds' of civilisation, POLYPLAST North-West has designed and tested a special soil concrete made from granulated slag. This is supplied by large metallurgical companies looking to dispose of their production waste.
Soil concrete has a density of around 2,000 kg/m³, comparable to traditional 'heavy' types of concrete, but its production requires granulated slag and locally sourced soil. During the tests, it was extracted directly from the bed of the Northern Dvina River, along with wood, metal, glass, and other debris. On-site, the builders created five ballast mats weighing between 500 and 700 kg each, which demonstrated adequate moisture and frost resistance, as well as corrosion resistance. This solution enables the quick production of necessary materials for shore reinforcement or roadbed preparation on-site, while also encapsulating non-toxic waste within the ballast mat.Read more Refrigerator for the foundation: experience of climate change in Norilsk Global warming vs. the housing