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Flaws May Make Concrete Better

1/10/17 8:39 AM

Concrete is fundamental to the construction of modern buildings and infrastructure, but that doesn't mean it's a perfect material. One of the drawbacks to concrete is that creating it accounts for more than 3.5% of the United States' total CO2 emissions and 5% of worldwide releases. In an attempt to make construction work more "green," researchers around the globe are looking for ways to create stronger, more durable concretes that will lend the same strength and stability without needing to use as much of the material. Rouzbeh Shahsavari, a materials engineer at Rice University, may have uncovered a key piece in the efficient concrete puzzle by studying some very ancient building materials.

Shahsavari carefully analyzed tobermorite cement, the preferred concrete base of the ancient Romans, under a microscope, and made a curious discovery about the cement's structure: it was filled with flaws. To be precise, the tobermorite exhibited screw dislocation, a spiral pattern of imperfections that permeated throughout many different layers of the concrete.

While a network of cracks in a structural material sounds like an accident waiting to happen at first blush, Shahsavari used computer modeling to demonstrate that the screw dislocation pattern within the tobermorite was actually advantageous. Shahsavari simulated force being applied to the ancient concrete and discovered that the imperfections within the tobermorite actually helped diffuse the force, guiding it out towards the edges of the concrete rather than bearing it internally. While cracks formed, they actually enhanced the concrete's ability to bear loads. In this way, concrete filled with cracks can actually be very strong.

Shahsavari's goal moving forward is to use this knowledge to improve upon our current manufacturing and building practices using concrete. He believes that by introducing the right imperfections into the material during creation, manufacturers can make strong, durable concrete that can bear heavy structural loads with less support. This would go far to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete.

Temperature control is key to Shahsavari's proposed flaw-embedding process. By raising and lowering ambient temperatures at crucial moments during the creation of pre-cast concrete slabs, manufacturers can mimic the imperfections that has helped Roman cement stand the test of time. MadgeTech, the New Hampshire data logging company, manufactures a variety of temperature data loggers to assist in concrete curing. By using MadgeTech data loggers, concrete manufacturers have access to second-by-second real-time data, ideal for controlled processes like the one described by Shahsavari.

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