There have been some epic and exciting developments in New Zealand’s civil construction industry as businesses adopt a more sustainable approach to getting things done – and the use of environmentally friendly technologies is a key part of this.

“It turns out sustainability is good for business,” according to Michael LeRoy-Dyson, Deloitte’s Associate Director of Sustainability and Owner of Auckland sustainability consultancy Rocat.

“Minimising impact, looking after staff, health and safety, making sure forward order books are healthy – day by day people are realising how important it is,” he says.

“There’s a tendency to look at sustainability as an ‘enhanced environment’ thing, but it’s much more than that. It’s part of a long-term successful future and increasingly people are asking their employers, ‘what are you doing about carbon and waste? What are you doing to give back to the community?’

“Environmental sustainability is one facet of the broader sustainability concept. The reason good environmental practice is given such prominence is that people – clients, staff and almost everyone else – like the environment.”

For Mr LeRoy-Dyson, reducing carbon footprints is his “personal crusade”. He is excited by the development and use of environmentally friendly technologies in the civil construction industry.

Conventional electric fuel cells will play a large role in the future of our cars, but other technologies are being developed that may hold more promise for the long-haul energy-hungry needs of heavy vehicles in the civil construction industry, he says.

For instance, some of the hydrogen technologies being developed for heavy machinery have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions while still providing for long periods of operation.

This is because, as Mr LeRoy-Dyson explained, one kilogram of hydrogen has five times the energy of diesel and it’s relatively easy to buy a kit to inject hydrogen into an existing vehicle.

“There are two ways you can use it – fuel cell technology, which requires a massive investment in infrastructure and may not happen quickly, or you can combust it.

“By adding a percentage of hydrogen to the diesel fuel mix – for example, five per cent or 10 per cent – there’s potential to considerably reduce carbon emissions, without having to replace the entire drive chain or invest in new equipment powered by hydrogen fuel cells.”

Ports of Auckland has recently installed a hydrogen refueller and plans to open its hydrogen plant this year, with hopes of exploring hydrogen fuel cell technology that could be used in industries including civil construction.

The plant will be the first of its kind in Auckland, producing hydrogen from water through electrolysis to separate hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen will then be used in fuel cells to create electricity to power trucks and other heavy vehicles and machinery – which can then be refilled at the port facility.

According to Ports of Auckland, just 10 to 15 litres of water can produce 1kg of carbon-free fuel (when using carbon-free electricity), which can power a truck or heavy vehicle around a worksite, or a small car for up to 100 kilometres. Imagine how efficient it would be to run your car or truck on that.

Biodiesel is another interesting environmentally friendly technology being used to reduce emissions. In fact, some New Zealand companies were already using a 5 per cent biodiesel blend provided by companies like Z Energy and Christchurch-based Green Fuels. This includes Fulton Hogan in its Canterbury truck fleet and some Auckland civil contracting companies in their vehicle fleets.

“At five per cent, mixing biodiesel with standard diesel doesn’t put it outside of the European specification, and it doesn’t require changes to the engine,” Mr LeRoy-Dyson says.

Some companies were even exploring supplementing conventional diesel with an increasing proportion of biofuel – between 10 and 20 per cent – as well as hydrogen, with careful monitoring to ensure no adverse impact on engine power or reliability, he says.

“It’s easy to imagine the significant impact on carbon emissions that a fuel mix with 20 per cent biodiesel and 10 per cent hydrogen could have, if it could be used by most heavy vehicles.”

Epic stuff.

Technology can also be used in the training space to reduce carbon emissions, or even remove them completely. Such is the case with virtual reality, which is being used as a training and career promotion tool as part of a Ministry of Social Development initiative backed by Civil Contractors New Zealand and others in the civil construction industry.

The initiative has seen the creation of a virtual reality training programme that enables career seekers and new civil contracting company hires to use a virtual reality headset to test their skills driving excavators or managing traffic on a work site.

Talk of asphalt blends may not excite you, but maybe the use of recycled plastics in roading will. The implications sure are exciting. Plas Mix – a new asphalt blend – will provide a purpose for thousands of tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastics collected in New Zealand each year.

This innovation, which has been used for pavements in New Plymouth, came about after China and Thailand decided to stop collecting our plastic.

It doesn’t cost any more than regular asphalt and gives disposed plastic a practical purpose, rather than just ending up in the tip or – worse – the ocean.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to using waste in construction projects. And Mr LeRoy-Dyson says there’s a lot of potential to use recyclable materials and to design in ways that allow materials to be disassembled easily and re-used – such as using screws rather than nails, wood for flooring, or recovered aggregates.

The capability of 3D printing is mind-blowing, and it may one day become a staple of sustainable construction – both in an environmental and business sense. It has already been used to build houses and even a concrete bridge in Shanghai, China.

“With 3D printing you get the ability to make modular components that are de-constructible, allowing them to be re-used and replaced without replacing the whole thing.”

The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to technology and the ways in which it can better our lives and minimise our impact on the environment.

What epic developments do the 2020s have in store?