More than 20 years ago, Nu-Rock discovered an untapped market through the development of sustainable building materials. After partnering with various power stations, steel mills, metal smelters and aluminium plants, the company had access to enough diverse consistent waste streams to create long-lasting recycled products. However, according to founder and Managing Director Maroun Rahme, they were about 20 years too early – a disadvantage that would later become a solid benefit. “No one knew the word ‘sustainability,’ no one knew the words ‘embodied energy,’ and no one understood carbon emissions,” he says. “All of the language that we speak today was like speaking Greek to them – they had no idea. There was no value in recycling back then. So, in 1999, we decided to start to using it for our own purposes, we started building with the product, and we have products out in the environment since 1994 that are still in perfect condition; they haven’t lost their surface, they haven’t deteriorated in any way, shape, or form; they are far superior than any concrete product that we used on the buildings around it that we built, and to any concrete product to the point that, over the years, we’ve just kept improving the technology to where we are today.”
With Nu-Rock technology, all present industrial waste is converted into product, leaving a green field behind after the process is complete. The variation in product depends on the characteristics of the material used, such as lightweight ash, or heavy duty steel and smelter residue. “We take the ash from the power station, and our process can use all of it,” says Maroun Rahme. “So, because ash is very light and half the weight of standard concrete, we can make a lightweight block, panels, sand & aggregate, or roof tiles. When we use steel waste, it’s a much heavier material; therefore, we use that for pavers, retaining blocks along roads, sea walls, and the roads themselves. Same with smelter material. We take that material and convert it into paver or retainer block, because it’s very heavy, but extremely high strength. With those sorts of materials, we can achieve up to 100 mpa and over, at about less than a half of the price of any concrete product equivalent – if they could make it that strong.
We look to fine-tune to process to each of the waste materials. So, when we’ve got a site, we’ll trial the ash or waste mateial, we’ll perfect the process for that, and then that way we’re be able to create a product that is superior to concrete. The latest test that we did through the University of Western Sydney showed that our product was about three times stronger than any concrete block; it had double the transverse strength, and a quarter of the water absorption. We were able to make a far superior product to anything that’s currently made in the market using virgin materials and very high energy. We found that, by fine tuning what we’ve done, we can produce an equivalent to a 200-series hollow block using 1.57 percent of the energy required to make it out of Portlaand cement. We meet all carbon emission targets that they wanted to meet globally. By 2020, if we put in 20 plants in Australia, we’d meet that target for Australia.”
With nothing but time as a motivator, Nu-Rock has used their 20 years of innovative experience wisely in terms of their development of sustainable products, which Maroun Rahme believes is an advantage over any modern company hoping to break new ground in the industry. “What that did was give us plenty of time to fine-tune and perfect the process to the point where we’re first to market, we know what we’re doing, we know how to deal with that process, we don’t have to spend years trialling the product to see if it reverses like geo-polymer products do,” he says. “That’s all part of the criteria of being able to make an environmentally-centred product. You want to make sure that you make something superior. What we made and put outside in 1994, we marked it with White Out, and that White Out is still on the product 22 to 23 years later. All the concrete products that we used in the building next to it were never touched by man, but completely lost their surface, and even some of the bricks have lost about 10 percent of their weight and surface completely. So, we can make an environmentally friendly product with a hell of a lot less energy at a lower price. We can even take back our product, crush it down, put it back through the plant, and make a product out of it again – an identical product if we have to; it’s completely sustainable at end of life. So, we’ve learned, developed and perfected all of these things over the last 20 years.”
Over the next few months, Nu-Rock will be converting their testing plant at Mount Piper to a full production plant. All inputs will continue to be recycled and sustainable products, including the material binders and their sources. The ultimate goal with the implementation of the improved plant is to consistently achieve a 100 percent sustainable product, which Maroun Rahme can guarantee with utmost confidence. “The approach to that is to be able to adapt the process to each industry we go into,” he says. “We’re starting on bricks and blocks because that’s a simple product that people understand, and we implement and use it in the industry the same way to the point that we see being smart is to reduce the cost of building; but, not like they’ve been doing for the last 50 years in Australia where they keep cutting labour out.
Cutting labour out isn’t sustainable – it’s being greedy. What we do is reduce the cost of the process, the building, and the product by employing the same number of people, but by having a much more economical product so the cost of construction is reduced through the product, not by getting rid of jobs. The last time I looked, when you didn’t have a job, you couldn’t buy a house. So, it defeats the purpose of making a cheaper product through getting rid of labour that it’s almost detrimental to what we’re trying to achieve. Sustainability is social; it’s not just a product. It’s a social awareness that’s been lost completely through the greed of some companies in their attempt to take market by reducing labour cost, which is a complete fallacy.”
According to Maroun Rahme, the current waste streams Nu-Rock has been able to access are enormous – thus furthering their goal to produce high-quality sustainable materials, and promoting their use for housing and infrastructure. “In New South Wales alone, the government has dumped 550 million tons of ash, and the current consumption of concrete is about 8 million tonnes,” he says. “We have all kinds of resources through the utilities that we’ve entered into agreements with that are sustainable for the next 100 years plus. Of course, that would be replacing current methods of construction immediately, which we wouldn’t be doing; we’d be working with the industry to slowly adapt the process.
Our vision and mission is to make the industry change its ways slowly; as plants and production facilities get to the end of their life stream on high energy-intensity products, they would convert across to our process. For example, a Clay Brick company; from one module we’re able to produce 200 million bricks a year. The capital cost of that is $12 million, and we use less than 1 percent of the energy to make those bricks than a gas-fired brick. We’re able to sell the brick for less than the price of the gas to burn the brick. If the Clay Brick Company wanted to make a plant for 200 million bricks, they would spend $300 million compared to our $12 million. All of these points go to show where sustainability is, and what is the drive – it’s to use less energy. The carbon argument and the carbon emission argument is that your carbon emission is the result of your use of energy. What we do at Nu-Rock is we focus on not using energy so, therefore, we are already carbon-friendly by our carbon reduction and carbon footprint. You can see the enormous advantages to the process that we’ve developed, hence the reason why we found some visionaries to join us to get this technology to the next step.”
At Nu-Rock, strong relations are important in order to further the success and initiatives of the company and its partners. Maroun Rahme proudly will be looking to employ recent university graduates for long-term career opportunities, and ensures that the needs of all staff members and clients are met warmly and efficiently. “Our attitude is to pay [staff] better than they’ll be paid anywhere else, keep them happy so that we’re happy and, as a team, we create a Nu-Rock family. We look after [our clients] because we want to be able to provide them a product that is less expensive, superior in characteristics to standard materials, salt attack resistant, acid attack resistant, very high Thermal rating – all these sorts of things that you can’t achieve with conventional materials. By doing that, we’re also creating a social attitude, which is to create employment.
We can produce a wall for up to half the price of a panel wall, and far superior in quality with a very high thermal rating, a very high strength, and a lot more workers on our site putting that wall up. We want to be able to pay them good money so they can afford to buy a house in Sydney, which, currently, no one can. We look to that by saying we can afford to pay a block layer working for us $400 a day; compared to other jobs, that’s pretty good pay, and we can produce that all on that building at the same speed as a panel system, because our products are lighter, easier to handle, easier to put together, and easier to bring to site and put more on a truck. So, the builder benefits by being able to build a cheaper house; the workers benefit by getting an excellent salary to be able to afford to buy a house; and Nu-Rock’s happy, because it’s providing products socially to the market at a price that’s comfortable with us, and where we look to be socially aware.”
For Maroun Rahme, the main factor that will affect the future of the industry is its lack of innovation over the last few centuries – some assertion may be required in order to continue establishing partnerships and promote change within the current sector. “We’re going to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” he says. “We want to work with them, but if we have to push, we’ll push. We want people to be able to start to shift their focus to be more socially aware, more in-tune with nature, and utilise waste streams as opposed to virgin materials where they quarry mountains, dig up rivers and make holes to scar the environment unnecessarily. Right now, in New South Wales, we are dumping 8 million tonnes of ash from burning coal to make electricity, and we are using 8 million tonnes of concrete – where we are digging up the virgin environment to make the same amount of material. There is something intrinsically wrong in that, and I think it’s about time that the industry started to focus a little bit more on itself and be a little bit more socially aware.”
Going forward, Maroun Rahme’s hope for the company is that they will be able to completely change the social perception of coal-fired power stations, steel mills, smelters and similar industries as a growing source for sustainable building products. In the short-term Nu-Rock has narrowed their focus towards further partnerships with coal-fired plants in order to create more green cement factories. Furthermore, over the next two decades, taking the company’s technology global remains the prime objective, educating the public on how waste materials can be used for affordable housing, roads, dams, and infrastructure projects at a fraction of the current cost. “Of course, as we produce better technologies and we move on, fantastic; but, globally, we dump about 4.5 to 5 billion tonnes of waste a year, and the interesting thing is we’re able to use it all. So, why don’t we? I think what is really important for people is to really start to have a look around and see what the social cost has been to us environmentally through our habits over the last 450 years since the industrial revolution started again.
We’re at a stage now where we’ve reached a maturity where we can afford to do something better and be less expensive, because the fundamental issue that they must always consider is that we have a finite resource on this globe; we have to look after it, we have to sustain it, we have to conserve it. For example, if you can produce a better house with an R6 thermal rating on its walls, floors and rooftops because of the character of the ash, why wouldn’t you do it? You’re going to have less energy to keep it warm and less energy to cool it. All of these things are factors that are part of the total life cycle of what we have as our habitat, and the habitat is second only to food and drinking water. So, I think if we’re smart, we will realise that.
The most important thing to also remember is not to be frightened by the number of people on the planet. If you put every person on the planet – all 7 billion people – in a box two feet by two feet by six feet, or a metric equivalent, you could fit every box under the sea level of the Sydney Harbour. It’s not that we have too many people on this planet. The problem is that, at the current rate of consumption of energy, we don’t have the ability to be able to look after that number of people. But, if we change our ways, then guess what? Everyone can have something, and we can all live together very comfortably. So, it’s the social thing that’s part of this, which is fundamental to the whole drive of what Nu-Rock’s trying to achieve – social awareness.”