“The ability to find interest and excitement in something that 99% of society think is just grey and boring – I revel in that!” Indeed, Professor John Provis delights in concrete and will tell you it is the most underappreciated material and that, after water, it’s the most abundant material in use. It is so commonplace and evident that we are liable to forget its significance to our lives until we see a building collapse from natural disasters or munitions, or where concrete is in short supply and hard to come by, that skeletal structure without walls or floors which ceases mid-construction until materials become affordable and available to restart. It is a thousand-year dynamic history of cementitious materials that are ever-adapting to our needs. A vision of a concrete brotherhood of scientists working on more sustainable cement binders emerges before your eyes.
John Provis grew up on an olive farm in the Adelaide Hills, in Australia. He studied Chemical Engineering and Applied Mathematics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and completed a PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2006. For six years, he was able to develop his research on cementitious materials in Australian government-funded research fellowship positions. In 2012, the University of Sheffield offered him a professorship, and without hesitation, he moved to the UK as Professor of Cement Materials Science and Engineering. A prolific writer, researcher and communicator, Provis has an extensive bibliography and has been Editor-in-Chief of Materials and Structures, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of RILEM Technical Letters, Associate Editor of Cement and Concrete Research, and Speciality Chief Editor for the Structural Materials section of Frontiers in Materials. He has been awarded several honours for his work in geopolymers and other cementitious materials.
He is naturally expansive when he talks and has a warm Antipodean accent, broad grins, and kind encouragement when the Zoom call drops. He wants to share not only the research his department does, which is significant given this most recent project on recycled concrete in Syria but also the academy and his role in it as a teacher, friend and colleague. It’s a reminder of why all academics can do their work: “The worst thing a researcher can do is develop a beautiful answer to a silly question.” Provis says, “To be able to think through, practically, what is important, what can I do to answer a question that is meaningful to people, is what makes research relevant and meaningful.”
After telling me about his long relationship with Cara, which he thinks does excellent work and deserves to be supported, and the colleagues he has come to know through Cara and how his own extensive research has been deepened as a consequence, he tells me that the Syrian project enabled him to call upon Cagla Meral Akgul, an old colleague, a Turkish friend, now an associate professor at the Department of Civil Engineering at the Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara. They once shared an office as young researchers at UC Berkeley, in California. Now that they are in positions to support their colleagues and make a difference in society, working on this important project was a no-brainer. “The international connections and the relationships you build through a career in the academic world are, to a large degree, what makes it all worthwhile. The ability to connect to people, to understand people and to go and see people all around the world is for me, as an engineer, vastly more than the engineering side. It is a community.”
He has been working on technologies to lower carbon emissions and immobilise nuclear waste at the Department of Material Science and Engineering at Sheffield, where he leads a large team focused on the science and engineering of cements. “Essentially, what we’re trying to do is to make sure that when we’re doing things with cement – and the world needs to do things with cement – we want to enable people to make the right decisions about which cements to use, how to use them and how to do it sustainably? We want to give them more options and flexibility so that we can build sustainably and treat the wastes that we have to treat. We cover very deep science at the fundamental chemical level, all the way through to the very practically focused.”
One of society’s genuinely challenging questions is how nuclear waste can be stored in concrete deep underground to avoid the worst radioactive contamination tragedies that have happened in the UK, North America, Europe and Japan in the past sixty years. This work, he tells me, has involved ethical questioning, community consultation, clarity of communication, technological precision and the ability to form longstanding relationships across universities worldwide. In the UK, he has been involved with the decommissioning process at Sellafield, using cement as an effective and affordable way to treat large volumes of lower-level wastes, “One of the best ways to solidify something is to design the right cement that will harden it, and this means you don’t have to dry the material,” he explains. “There are different pathways to treat high-level nuclear waste that generates heat, but the lower level waste, the stuff that does not generate heat but is still radioactive, is put into cement which is effective and affordable.” He is involved with other projects, including putting the “green” into the “concrete jungle”, showing how concrete can be sustainable by optimising specific inputs into the production chain of cement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50 per cent.
In 2019, partnering with colleagues Drs Abdulkader Rashwani, Bakry Kadan and Yousef Alhammoudi from Sham University, Cagla Meral Akgul and Sepehr Seyedian Choubi from Middle East Technical University, and Theodore Hanein and Maurizio Guadagnini from Sheffield University, facilitated by Cara, Provis embarked on a study to see whether debris from damaged war-torn buildings in the northwest region could be recycled into new construction materials for human habitation. It was a multi-layered, multi-country project involving sampling and the transport of debris from Syria to labs in Turkey and the UK to conduct tests and process the recycled aggregates to a safe enough standard to provide building materials for the millions displaced due to the war and their destroyed or damaged homes. When he was approached by Cara about the project, he contacted associate professor and friend, Cagla Meral Akgul, to ask whether she would agree to be involved – she agreed: “We had last seen each other in 2009/2010, but stayed in touch. We have known each other for a decade, and it was a chance to set up a project and work together after all this time.”
Look at the photos of shelled-out buildings by Syrian photographers Baraa Al-Halabbi or Ameer Alhalbi or any of the photographic records after the earthquakes, and you get an immediate understanding of the importance and urgency of the study. However, Provis says, “There is still a way to go before rebuilding. We have to scale up, but it is important research for the first stage. We have demonstrated that you can make the concrete and that the concrete can meet the standards used for those applications. The intention is to make it safe for human habitation. We did a lot of radioactivity testing to ensure the material was safe in case any depleted uranium munitions were used, and we need to understand other forms of potential contamination that may exist in structures in different parts of the world, so it is something to be cautious about if we are unsure of what is there. We are providing a methodology specialised for future stages of development. We are being appropriately cautious. In an engineering sense, we can say we are putting in place the process that will protect people and workers on-site, as and when people go forward with something like this.”
Provis first met Syrian chemists, Dr Rashwani, now the Vice-Rector at Sham University, and Dr Bakry Kadan when he hosted them at Sheffield as Cara Research Fellows in 2019. “I have enjoyed getting to know them as collaborators and friends. We had detailed discussions and they worked hard in the labs, and I then flew to Istanbul for a Cara workshop to continued our work and write up of findings, where I got to know them better. It really puts a perspective, a human face, on the situation. It helps you understand how creative people will find a way to be creative. Sitting down and having coffee with them, having lunch together, talking about families and what we all have in common brings a greater degree of closeness to, and understanding of, these international events. I recommend academics partner with anyone from around the world.” He says, “You understand people and what motivates them and how society works. The ability to see things from a different perspective. That is what the world needs.”