The Latest in Concrete Innovations: Programmable Cement

The Latest in Concrete Innovations: Programmable Cement

By Heidi Reidel

According to Architect Magazine, concrete is humanity’s most consumed substance after water. Cement is also said to be responsible for 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Research suggests that concrete may actually be the source of a carbon sink that offsets 43% of carbon emissions from the production of the material, but it is still imperative to reduce the amount of cement manufactured, as well as to make it more durable and environmentally friendly.

What is Programmable Cement?

The answer may be found in a discovery by scientists at Rice University: programmable cement.

Rice University Scientists have decoded the kinetic properties of cement and developed a way to “program” the microscopic, semicrystalline particles within. This turns particles from disordered clumps into regimented shapes (cubes, spheres, etc.) that combine to make the material less porous and more durable. The programmable cement will lead to stronger structures that require less concrete, thus reducing concrete production and, in turn, carbon emissions.

Environmental Benefits

How does this technique lead to reduced concrete production? According to Rice materials scientist and lead author Rouzbeh Shahsavari, “It stems from better packing of the cubic particles, which leads to stronger microstructures. The other is that it will be more durable. Less porosity makes it harder for unwanted chemicals to find a path through the concrete, so it does a better job of protecting steel reinforcement inside.”

Innovations in Concrete

Programmable cement is not the only recent advancement in concrete. Scientists at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) have created fire-resistant concrete which will make construction safer, cheaper, and more efficient. Scientists from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University have developed bendable concrete. Regular concrete must be poured thick to prevent cracking under pressure, but bendable concrete (much like the programmable cement) will help to reduce the amount of concrete poured and produced. Researchers at the University of Bath are developing a self-healing concrete that uses bacteria to seal the cracks that lead to decay. All of these innovations aim to further the goal of reducing the environmental impact of concrete production.

With a steadily growing global population, developing countries advancing, and developed countries tapping into untouched areas, the need for construction is sure to increase. If the world is to accommodate these growing needs as well as collectively reduce carbon emissions, these innovations are more necessary than ever. If cement production can be effectively reduced, its ability to reabsorb CO2 could potentially be used to help the environment rather than harm it.

Image courtesy of Rice University

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