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NBA champ Rick Fox sees a climate win in "green" concrete

Athlete and actor Rick Fox is probably best known for his 13 years in the NBA, which included a “three-peat” run of championships with the Los Angeles Lakers at the start of the 21st century. Fox has also a been a familiar presence in movies and on television, appearing in dozens of roles including the HBO prison drama Oz and the reality show Dancing with the Stars.

So, Fox’s latest career move is a curious switch. Fox is now co-founder and CEO of Partanna, a company that makes “green” concrete in an effort to turn what is now a major source of carbon dioxide emissions into a climate solution.

“I’ve always been on amazing teams,” Fox told Newsweek, explaining the common thread connecting the basketball court and concrete buildings. “I look at this one and it doesn’t surprise me that I would be smack-dab in the center of a team that’s looking to change the way we build in the world, and undertaking something that appears insurmountable.”

On Monday, the company unveiled a house in Nassau, the capital of Fox’s native country, the Bahamas. The home is built from concrete that the company says goes beyond low-carbon to carbon-negative, removing CO2 from the atmosphere as it solidifies.

By avoiding emissions during cement production and removing CO2 from the air, the company says, the 1,250-square-foot home will reduce some 180 metric tons of CO2. Construction of a standard concrete-built home, by comparison, generates more than 70 tons of CO2.

The house is the first of 1,000 planned for a development that the Bahamian government hopes will offer residents more storm-resistant shelter. Concrete construction offers advantages in a region where climate change is making tropical storms more intense.

Fox said witnessing the destruction of Hurricane Dorian, a Category-5 storm that ravaged the Bahamas in 2019, is part of what set him on a course to co-found Partanna.

“It really shook me into an action state,” Fox said. “I started to ask, what were some of the solutions in the world that would allow us to withstand these storms going forward?”

The following year brought the COVID pandemic and further soul-searching about the fragile state of society. Fox got to know architect and designer Sam Marshall over a series of conversations while they were both in lockdown, and the two agreed to start Partanna.

Fox is a man who knows a winning shot when he sees one—just ask some of his opponents. He said green concrete is a win-win for places like the island where he grew up, places that are most affected by climate change.

Portland Cement Problem

Concrete is humanity’s second-most used commodity, after water, and the world’s most widely used building material. The production of concrete is enormously energy intensive—it consumes about 3 percent of the world’s energy—and is responsible for roughly 8 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions.

The main climate culprit is Portland cement, the glue that holds together the aggregate materials in concrete. Portland cement, named for an English stone quarry, was developed in the early 19th century by heating limestone and clay in an oven and grinding it into a fine powder. That process has been improved over time, but the basic formula has remained the foundation of the cement industry for centuries. Portland cement provided the building blocks for modern society while also building up massive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In the past couple of decades, innovators have come up with ways to make cleaner concrete. These alternatives reduce or capture the emissions from Portland cement production, incorporate recycled materials into the concrete or replace the Portland cement altogether with a new kind of binder, as Partanna is doing.

Dozens of green concrete brands and companies have emerged, ranging from giants of the building materials world to small startups.

On the large end, Swiss-based Holcim says its ECOPact brands reduce the CO2 emissions from concrete by anywhere from 30 percent to 90 percent and have been used in recent major construction projects, such as Georgetown University’s new residence halls in Washington, D.C. At the smaller end, the startup Brimstone, in Oakland, California, is developing a version of Portland cement using a source material other than limestone for a carbon-negative product.

A 2020 study in the monthly journal Materials Today found that green forms of concrete can not only lower greenhouse gas emissions—they can also reduce the industry’s massive intake of fresh water and aggregate materials like sand and gravel. Many of the new materials were also found to have better performance than conventional concrete and cement.

Now the main challenge is to bring down costs and greatly increase scale, and that will require action from concrete users, as well as producers.

“I see really promising technologies, but we have teaspoons of it compared to what I need in the tens of thousands of tons,” construction sustainability expert Sara Neff told Newsweek.

As head of U.S. sustainability for the multinational construction and real estate company Lendlease, Neff is looking for a lot of concrete and she needs to meet the company’s ambitious goals for emissions reductions. Lendlease has committed to “absolute carbon-zero operation” by 2040, meaning the company will not use carbon offsets to account for emissions, but will instead create no greenhouse gases in its work.

She points to a Lendlease project under construction in New York as an example of how the company can cut emissions by using less concrete. The 800-unit apartment complex at One Java Street in Brooklyn will reduce the emissions from concrete by about a quarter, Neff said, compared to traditional construction through the use of a material called “recycled glass pozzolan,” in place of some Portland cement.

But replacement materials are not always available at the quantities needed. Neff hopes the purchasing power of companies like Lendlease and investments by sustainability-minded financiers will spur more green concrete production.

“I really do think that it’s possible in the next five years, if we unlock that funding, to get them to scale,” she said.

The Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration’s climate legislation from 2022, also promises to give the industry a boost.

Congress included close to $6 billion in the IRA for the Department of Energy, to help heavy industries like concrete to lower their carbon footprint. The DOE’s Advanced Industrial Facilities Deployment Program offers competitive grants for companies that adopt low-carbon cement production, and the Biden administration’s Buy Clean Initiative prioritizes low-carbon materials for federally funded construction projects.

An Island Kid

Fox said Partanna has not yet benefitted from the subsidies in the IRA but could do so as it expands U.S. production. Meanwhile, the company has forged a relationship with the Bahamian government to scale up its concrete production in ways that help the island nation adapt to climate change.

“I’m an island kid that came from a dot on the map,” Fox said of his childhood in the Bahamas. “We are at the frontline of climate change.”

The islands face a trifecta of climate impacts: rising sea levels, more intense storms and threats to drinking water. Fox said he thinks his company can contribute to helping the country cope with all three.

Kevin MacDonald is a longtime concrete researcher who is now an engineering advisor for Fox’s team at Partanna. MacDonald said he and his partners tackled the cement problem at the basic chemistry level, rethinking the processes and the ingredients that can be used.

“We’re not just trying to do less bad,” MacDonald told Newsweek. “What we’re trying to do is solve problems.”

Their resulting patented process replaces Portland cement as the binder in concrete, eliminating much of the CO2 emissions. Partanna’s main ingredients also make use of slag from the steel industry and brine from desalination plants, an upcycling of wastes that would otherwise take up landfill space or, in the case of brine, potentially harm marine or freshwater ecosystems.

The Bahama Islands rely on desalination for much of their water supply and depend on healthy coasts to support a tourism economy, so it is important to find a productive use for the brine from desalination.

“We’re taking waste that would otherwise be just discarded into the ocean and we turn it into a feedstock,” Fox said. “We make it a positive product.”

After Fox welcomed Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis to tour the new house, ahead of Monday’s unveiling, Davis said in a statement that he was “immensely proud” that a Bahamian entrepreneur helped bring it about. Davis said the home is solid proof that the answers to our global crises can come from those most affected.

“We are not just on the frontline of climate change,” Davis said. “We are the frontline of solutions.”

Update 10/18/23, 4:50 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Holcim as LafargeHolcim.

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