ZaakSand: smart, ecological “sand”

June 27, 2016

In 2012, after reading an article on the global sand crisis, Abbas Khan, who holds a doctorate in recycling, came up with the idea of changing industrial fly ash into a new type of sand. Now his start-up, Zaak Technologies, is turning lead into gold!


So what is this process you have invented?

The aim is to retrieve fly ash, which is at best only partially recycled, and turn it into a material that can be used as an alternative to sand in the construction industry. In practice, the ash yielded by industrial combustion (typically coal-fired electricity generation) is mixed with a natural additive that is easy to produce anywhere in the world (but which I will not reveal!) in order to obtain pellets. Once heated at high temperature, these pellets turn into a sort of ceramic sand. It is a continuous process, carried out directly at the site where the ash is produced. But the main benefit is not the process itself, it’s our product!

Precisely. You say your sand is “smart”… but isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?

You tell me. But first, let me tell you about all the advantages. We can choose – and more importantly, guarantee – the finished product’s granularity. This sort of flexible option is obviously out of the question with natural sand. Our sand is also 50% lighter, which opens up new prospects for architectural applications. What’s more, it does not contain any impurities, thereby eliminating the need for the usual washing and drying cycles, and, more importantly, yielding higher-quality concrete and hence greater safety (editor’s note: inclusions can result in structural weaknesses). Thanks to better molecular bonding (even in very hot, humid countries), we’ve estimated that a building’s lifetime can be doubled with “ZaakSand”, not to mention the advantages for earthquake-resistant construction. And then it gives the building sector an exceptionally good energy balance, both during construction (it saves on water, concrete reinforcements, transport, power, etc.) and when the building is in use, since concrete made with SmartSand provides fives times as much insulation as standard concrete! Do you want more examples? It is also far more soundproof.

What are the most important applications?

There are so many of them that we’re going to let the market decide. What I can say for sure is that our “sand” will be a high-end material, if only because the potential production volumes are still nowhere near meeting demand (a few per cent at best). Even so, we think the architectural aspect, and more specifically the densification of cities, is a major avenue. The product is so light that it will be possible to build vertical extensions without compromising the solidity of the existing buildings, for example, or add traffic lanes to a bridge. Moreover, we are already in contact with industrial companies such as Saint-Gobain, which are inventing new materials, such as slabs, containing ZaakSand.

How are you going to produce enough and, more importantly, finance your production plant?

This is, of course, a challenge for an industrial start-up. We’re going to start with joint ventures with industrial companies, and Build-Own-Operate contracts (editor’s note: in BOO arrangements, the operator finances, builds and operates the infrastructure with a predetermined margin, obtained by applying long-term contractual prices). However the primary model will be technology licensing, combined with services (technical assistance, help with sourcing the additives, etc.). For the financing, we are currently conducting a €3 million round, €1 million of which is already secured, thanks mainly to the fact that KIC InnoEnergy has a stake in our capital: this reassures the other investors as to the validity and credibility of our technology. Eighty per cent of these funds will be invested in constructing a demonstrator in Germany, with a production capacity of 15,000 m3 per year. Stay posted for the inauguration of the first “ZaakSand Inside” building in 2018!


Sand in figures:

  • Global market: USD 70 bn/year
  • 10-15 billion tonnes of natural sand mined each year
  • 1 km of motorway = 30,000 tonnes of sand
  • 1 house = 200 tonnes of sand
  • 2 billion tonnes of sand are illegally mined in India every year
  • Dubai has imported sand from Australia to build Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper