The construction industry consumes truckloads of basic materials, the manufacture of which consumes massive quantities of energy, producing prodigious emissions of greenhouse gases. If materials scientists and entrepreneurs can devise materials that can be fabricated with less energy, climate change could be slowed and many new manufacturing jobs could be created, fulfilling a much-anticipated promise of clean-tech innovation.

The U.S., which lost millions of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, is in a strong position to capitalize on greener construction materials if research and funding are focused soon, according to panelists who spoke Wednesday at the GoingGreen conference in Sausalito, Calif. "We have such terrific materials science in this country," said Marianne Wu, partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures. "But for years it's all been applied to infotech and biotech. We simply have not been looking at building materials. There is pent-up expertise that can create all sorts of innovations."

Many basic building products can be improved so significantly that everything is up for reinvention, said Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials. "We're beginning to make less energy-intensive cement," he noted, "but maybe we can make better bricks, too. My company's new drywall is the first real change in decades. Double-pane windows were invented in the 1800s. The world just has not cared about working on this."

The success of new cement from Calera Corp. shows how large gains can be. "The production of Portland cement globally creates two and a half billion tons of carbon dioxide annually," Calera CEO Brent Constantz said. Instead, new processes Calera is scaling up can actually sequester half a ton of the greenhouse gas for each ton of cement produced. And fresh water is created as a by-product. Furthermore, if the cement factories were installed next to coal-fired power plants, they could absorb the plants' carbon emissions as raw material.

Because the construction industry is so extensive, and because of the U.S.'s embedded materials expertise, Surace maintained that a transformation to cleaner technologies could bring basic manufacturing back to the country. "We can get back to making things, which was the foundation of American industry for a century," he said.

To make that transition happen, "we need to build new Silicon Valleys of construction materials entrepreneurs, and we need universities to develop programs that can churn out people with the right expertise," Surace said. Mohr Davidow's Wu noted that millions of jobs could realistically be created, adding: "These materials are big, and heavy, so it makes economic sense to manufacture them locally, instead of shipping them thousands of miles." She said that labor for this sort of manufacturing is low tech and therefore not expensive, making it harder for overseas competitors to undercut domestic producers. "A clean-tech building materials industry really could bring lots of jobs back to the U.S.," Wu said, "in many local regions."