Kimberly Asemota (far right), Blandine Barthod (right) and David Aceituno-Caicedo (left) with Nane Annan in Geneva.
Kimberly Asemota (far right), Blandine Barthod (right) and David Aceituno-Caicedo (left) are pictured with Nane Annan, wife of the former UN secretary general, receiving the SDSN Youth Special Prize in Geneva. (Photo provided by Kimberly Asemota)
Tuesday, January 8 - 2019
Alexa Battler

U of T Scarborough students are no strangers to concrete. Neither are developing nations, where concrete is an important part of development.

But the material has its downsides — creating it takes a toll on the environment, it cracks, and uses clean water as one of its three ingredients.

A group of alum have been internationally recognized for their proposal to create a stronger, self-healing and more environmentally friendly concrete to help nations fight climate change, build sustainably, and save valuable drinking water in the process.

“Climate change isn’t just a scientific problem, it’s a problem in almost every discipline that exists, it affects everything directly or indirectly,” says David Aceituno-Caicedo, a recent graduate of the master of environmental science program.

While finishing the master program at U of T Scarborough, Aceituno-Caicedo and fellow alum Kimberly Asemota were inspired by two class topics.

In one week, they learned about bioconcrete, an emerging technology for self-healing concrete. The mixture uses bacteria and nutrients that, when exposed to water, becomes limestone, allowing it to fill its own cracks. In another week, they learned about the sustainable use of brine — the highly concentrated salt mixture leftover from making saltwater drinkable.

“We thought, ‘Why not just take the brine that has to be managed from the water desalination process and use that to mix bioconcrete?’” Aceituno-Caicedo says. “It’s mixing the two industries together, bridging this sustainability gap and taking the waste of one and using it to benefit the other.”

Through Maria Dittrich, associate professor in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, they were connected to Blandine Barthod, a master of environmental science student doing a one-year exchange program from the University of Geneva.

Dittrich, who supervised Barthod during her master thesis, felt their fields of expertise would complement each other. Aceituno-Caicedo’s background is in microbiology, while Asemota’s is in chemistry and Barthod’s is in international development.

“It’s even better when people work together, when they start mixing the backgrounds for interdisciplinary solutions to an interdisciplinary problem,” Aceituno-Caicedo says.

Team wins special prize on international stage

Dittrich also encouraged them to enter the Geneva Challenge, an annual competition for master students to showcase ideas to solve an international development issue. Their proposal was one of the top 15 global semi-finalists. Though they did not proceed to the finals, they were awarded the SDSN Youth Special Prize.

The trio were invited to Geneva, Switzerland, for the award ceremony and to network with other global leaders. Their work will also be published on the Youth Solutions Report platform.

“I met David and Kim at the end of my stay in Toronto and I thought I would never see them again,” Barthod says. “Then a few weeks ago, we were in Geneva and we were having fun together again.”

While in Geneva, the group networked with an array of people working on projects to tackle climate change — from those with architectural to economic backgrounds.

 “It was a good learning opportunity with like-minded individuals who have similar goals,” Asemota says.

Their proposal used Cape Town, South Africa as a case study. The city is in the midst of a drought crisis, and Day Zero, the day when water levels are so low that the city’s taps will run dry and citizens will have to use communal water stations, is expected to happen in 2019. 

“We are dealing with issues of water scarcity and we are also tackling the issues of sustainable development for infrastructure,” Asemota says. “Our major goal was having more water available to the public in areas that are water stressed.”

For the proposal, Asemota focused on how possible using the new concrete would be in Cape Town, while Barthod focused on the broader international development aspects. Aceituno-Caicedo focused on the feasibility of using brine to mix bioconcrete.

Their next steps are to continue networking, finding the best ways to mix the concrete and start working on a pilot project.

“It’s like a domino effect, if you give people the basic necessities for life, like water, that leaves room for them to start developing in other areas,” Aceituno-Caicedo says. “We want to give nations these tools to help them build capacity, sustain the technology in their own country and help them implement it themselves.”