2014 and the future of ash

2014 was a good year for the construction industry. With investment and demand on the rise, the sector hit the same levels of productivity seen pre-recession. That’s good news and the construction sector is likely to go into 2015 – an election year – with a renewed sense of confidence, but there are challenges.

Material supply, for example, remains a potential problem. Throughout the year the news has been littered with stories about brick shortages and a lack of planning for aggregate extraction that led to supply being unable to meet demand. Coal ash production and supply was hit too, and a sudden drop in gas prices in the summer reduced the UK’s reliance on coal-fired power generation.

Naturally, coal ash production and the complexities of energy generation in the UK are one and the same, and the Government’s aims to diversify and de-carbonise the energy mix will have an impact on future production. However, at the end of 2014, coal power continues to be the single largest source of generation – narrowly beating gas. That’s likely to remain the case until the next generation of power stations come online.

At the UKQAA though, we’re working hard to look at how we can stabilise coal ash supply and 2014 has been an important year in this respect for two reasons.

The first is the work being done at RWE Generation’s now-closed Tilbury Power Station in Essex where Generation Aggregates worked with block manufacturer H+H to recover ash from existing stockpiles for use in aircrete blocks. Through an excavation and screening process on-site, Generation Aggregates has unlocked a stream of supply and allowed H+H access to a previously closed source of material.

We believe the same approach could work elsewhere and unlock significant supplies of fly ash around the country – boosting availability and making it less reliant on power generation. To explore this, we announced a pioneering project with the University of Dundee’s Concrete Technology Unit (CTU) to assess the potential of stockpile ash.

It’s an exciting project and over the next year, we’ll assess how much exists, and determine performance as pozzolanas. We can then establish how to improve quality by developing a process route capable of transforming stockpile ash into EN 450 fly ash for use in concrete.

We can’t control coal-fired power generation or the Government’s plans for a future energy mix, but we can look at how we can use existing material to meet future demand. If successful, we’re confident it could have a huge impact on the sector, so we’re looking forward to a positive 2015.