Rice husk grist to the cement mill: new student developed technology

Students from the University of Melbourne have developed a revolutionary machine to create low-cost, environmentally sustainable building materials, which is expected to have substantial applications in developing countries.

The Rice Ash Husk Grinder, developed by Edward Brelsford, Simon Liley, Kareem Sultan and Carl Muir, was on show as part of the recent Endeavour Expo, which showcases final-year projects developed by engineering and IT students at the University of Melbourne, and which provides a sneak peak of technology and innovation for tomorrow.

The team developed an experimental device, allowing them to determine the most efficient way to grind rice husk ash, a waste product from rice production, creating an alternative, highly-sustainable ingredient for concrete. The innovative concept paid off for the students, who were awarded the 2014 Endeavour Sustainability Prize, as well as the Departmental Prize for Mechanical Engineering.

Of the materials that we use most in the world, concrete is second only to water. The fundamental building material is typically held together by cement, which is produced through consumption of a large amount of energy. This means the production of concrete, buildings and other infrastructure leaves a hefty bill and a vast carbon footprint in its wake.

By using rice husk ash as an ingredient for concrete, less cement or ‘glue’ would be needed to construct buildings, reducing the infrastructure’s impact on the environment. As a waste product that is plentiful in South-East Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, the material offers greater energy efficiency during concrete production, empowering communities in developing countries to cheaply and sustainably develop infrastructure.

“Instead of seeing rice husk ash as a waste product, we can use it in the construction of buildings across Asian countries,” says team member Kareem Sultan.

Simon Liley says concern about sustainability was the team’s guiding passion.

“I believe strongly that engineering can be a powerful force for good and I hope to take that belief with me wherever I end up,” Mr Liley says.

Edward Brelsford agrees, and found working with a dedicated group on a project that was centred on sustainability and had a chance of being implemented very enjoyable.

“It’s important to do something you’re passionate about, and something you may not get the opportunity to do again. It’s not very often you get to select a project that interests you, and that you are supported to make that project the best it can be.”

Carl Muir concedes the final year project was a massive challenge, but also inspiring, offering a blank page for the team to write on.

“We received a lot of support from the Department, who allowed us to conduct our tests in their labs and provided a lot of help along the way,” he says.

Academics in the Department of Infrastructure Engineering are currently working on similar research projects, including an investigation into how fly ash can be used in a similar way to rice husk ash, as an alternative ingredient for concrete. Fly ash, derived from burning coal, is a common waste material in Australia. Concrete production offers a means of recycling these waste products that would otherwise be discarded.

Over 100 final year engineering and IT design projects were on display at the recent Endeavour Expo. Over the course of 2014 student teams were able to put the theory of their studies into practice in order to create unique solutions to real-world problems. Some of the projects included a portable brain-scanning device to assist epilepsy research, a fully functioning micro-brewery, a robot that can fight fires, and a device that transcribes music directly from a guitar.

The expo was visited by school students from around Victoria, along with University of Melbourne staff and students and industry representatives. The event included a keynote address from Intel’s Director of Interaction and Experience Research, Genevieve Bell, who stressed the importance of increasing the participation rates of women in engineering and technology.

This article was originally published in The University of Melbourne Voice


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