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Impact of the selection of functional unit on the life cycle assessment of green concrete

Panesar, Daman K., Seto, Karina E., Churchill, Cameron J.
The international journal of life cycle assessment 2017 v.22 no.12 pp. 1969-1986
cement, chlorides, compression strength, concrete, durability, environmental impact, life cycle assessment, limestone, permeability, silica, slags
PURPOSE: The objectives of this study are to evaluate life cycle assessment (LCA) for concrete mix designs containing alternative cement replacement materials in comparison with conventional 100% general use cement concrete and to evaluate the interplay and sensitivity of LCA for four concrete mix designs and six functional units which range in degrees of complexity and variables. METHODS: Six functional units with varying degrees of complexity are included in the analysis: (i) volume of concrete, (ii) volume and 28-day compressive strength, (iii) volume and 28-day rapid chloride permeability (RCP), (iv) volume and binder intensity, (v) volume and a combination of compressive strength and RCP and (vi) volume and a combination of binder intensity and RCP. Four reference flows are included in the analysis: three concrete mix designs containing slag, silica fume and limestone cement as cement replacement and one concrete mix design for conventional concrete. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: All three alternative mix designs were evaluated to have lower environmental impacts compared with the base 100% general use cement and so are considered to be ‘green’ concrete. Similar LCA results were observed for FU₁, FU₂ and FU₄, and relatively similar results were obtained for FU₃, FU₅ and FU₆. LCA conducted with functional units which were a function of durability exhibited markedly different (lower) LCA compared with the functional units that did not capture long-term durability. CONCLUSIONS: Outcomes of this study portray the interplay between concrete mix design materials, choice of functional unit and environmental impact based on LCA. The results emphasize (i) the non-linearity between material properties and environmental impact and (ii) the importance of conducting an LCA with a selected functional unit that captures the concrete’s functional performance metrics specific to its application and expected exposure conditions. Based on this study, it is recommended that a complete LCA for a given concrete mix design should entail examination of multiple functional units in order to identify the range of environmental impacts or the optimal environmental impacts.