While three students from Copenhagen Business School were looking for a start-up opportunity, they came across a new twist on concrete – one of the planet’s five most pervasive materials. Kristian Hertz, a professor of civil engineering at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), had devised a greener approach to making concrete structures.
Hertz’s research focused on a new way of combining ordinary concrete and lightweight concrete, drawing inspiration from the human body – with the skeleton’s bones carrying the load while softer and lighter parts shape the body. Hertz made structures with a core of ordinary concrete surrounded by a stabilising layer of lighter concrete.
This breakthrough may have made the front page in the local media, but six months on it was, as Alexander Wulff, one of the three students, puts it, “still lying in a drawer at the university”. Wulff and his fellow students convinced Hertz to create a spin-out with them in 2010, taking the role of technical expert. Abeo A/S, winner of the ACES 2013 Award for Materials and Chemicals, has patents on key technologies and is launching pilot projects with innovative architectures.
“A lot of brilliant technologies are constantly being invented at European universities. However, a lot of them never get out of the drawer. With Abeo we hope to be an example of what can be achieved when combining a good idea from a technical university with commercial expertise,” says, Chief Marketing Officer Wulff.
Hertz’s innovative approach created the potential to cut the material consumption of concrete in buildings by up to 50 per cent. With this weight-saving in mind, the team decided to give their technology the name Super-Light Structures.
In addition to using less material, Wulff says, Abeo’s technology cuts the cost of construction, allowing builders to make parts off site and to transport them to where they are needed. Abeo claims that it can match the 50 per cent material saving with up to 50 per cent savings in energy use and CO2 emissions. As if that weren’t enough to sell the technology, Abeo’s management says its materials also provide better sound insulation, higher fire resistance and greater architectural flexibility.
Wulff describes the new approach to making structures out of concrete as “a generic technology”. There were plenty of things that they could do with it, but that was “the challenge of the invention”, he says. Where should they start? There was no clear idea where the new superlight concrete should be used. “We decided that we had to focus on one area of application and that we also had to develop a specific construction system,” says Wulff.
To develop a first commercial application, Abeo needed capital. With the support of the university, the team managed to win a seed investment of roughly €300,000 from the largest Scandinavian venture capital firm, SEED Capital. This allowed the company to carry out essential tests.
For example, buildings are governed by all sorts of safety regulations. Before Abeo could sell its technology, the company had to show that it was safe and that buildings made of its lightweight concrete would not fall down. So part of Abeo’s early work involved putting the company’s structures through fire tests at the Danish Institute of Fire Technology.
Abeo has taken out patents on its key technologies, including Super-Light Decks (SL-Deck), which is the first product based on the technology. The SL-Deck is a new system for making precast load-bearing floors for multi-storey buildings. One of the first implementations of Abeo’s technology is in a campus expansion at DTU, a construction which Wulff describes as the first real change in decking technology in half a century.
As another potential market, Abeo has also studied curved structures, which are a big challenge for civil engineers. Traditionally they require expensive moulds and scaffolding. The high cost of forming curved concrete limits the designs that architects can use, which is why many buildings are a mass of squares and rectangles. To cut the cost of adding curves to buildings, Abeo deployed another innovation by Hertz called Pearl-Chain Reinforcement. This involves wiring a series of prefabricated concrete elements. Stress the wires and the concrete can form curved structures.
The trial projects will serve as technology demonstrators. The company does not intend to go into the construction business or to set up factories churning out concrete shapes. Instead, it plans to license the technology to construction businesses that already have production facilities, networks and customers. “The precast market consists of more than 8,000 factories, just in Europe alone,” says Wulff, “so the market is huge.”
Abeo has established partnerships with Grontmij, a leading European consulting and engineering, and BIG, the company founded by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, among others. And the company recently signed its first licensing agreement for the production of the SL-Deck with Perstrup Beton Industri, the Danish manufacturer of concrete elements.
What’s next? With Perstrup, ABEO is setting up a first factory that is expected to start production on 1 October. Subsequently the main goal will be to launch sales of the SL-Deck in Denmark. “We expect in 2014 to initiate dialogue with foreign concrete producers concerning licenses of the SL-Deck,” says Wulff.
So Abeo is on its way to making Hertz’s breakthrough in green concrete buildings a real market innovation. You could say that Abeo’s founders have turned into concrete the papers that they found lying in a drawer. If all goes to plan, they could change the shape of modern buildings.