Waste material gets a new lease on life

Moussa Thiam puts a cement sample into a compression machine
Making cement from recycled plastic

PhD candidate Moussa Thiam is developing a new type of cement that’s green, light and economical.

Moussa Thiam, a PhD candidate in civil engineering at the University of Ottawa, took a gamble on recycling waste in Mali, a country where the practice is virtually non-existent. After several years of study and experimentation, it looks like his efforts are about to pay off.

“I was living in a popular neighbourhood of Bamako, Mali’s capital, when a waste transfer station opened,” he said. “Altercations broke out between residents and the local authorities, because people were opposed to it opening in their neighbourhood. Since then, I’ve wanted to find a way to use waste as a raw material locally.” 

The Malian student has developed a new construction material from sand, gravel and recycled plastic. The material has many of the characteristics of traditional cement, but is lighter, which makes various uses possible.

“You can well imagine making flexible paving stones for secondary roads, for example, or tiles for public washrooms,” Thiam says.

The manufacturing process also creates less pollution. As the material does not need to be fired at as high a temperature as conventional cement, fewer greenhouse gases are emitted.

In addition to being greener, Thiam’s cement costs 15% less to produce than traditional cement.

Currently, prototypes are being tested in a uOttawa lab, as well as in Mali, where Thiam travels once a year to continue his research. One of his goals is to see how the cement could be used in other countries and climates. He says that commercialization could begin in 2018.

In fact, Thiam’s work is already attracting interest. He won first prize at the 2016 Next Einstein Forum, which showcases the contribution of African scientific talent to global development efforts.

The government of Mali has said it intends to use the cement on the country’s roads, and the Université de Bamako may use it to pave part of its courtyard.

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Moussa Thiam, wearing a lab coat, holds a sample of his cement

Watch Moussa Thiam give his winning presentation at uOttawa’s 2017 Ma thèse en 180 secondes competition.

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