CEE engineers find way to slow concrete creep to a crawl

June 15, 2009

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

MIT civil engineers have for the first time identified what causes the most frequently used building material on earth — concrete — to gradually deform, decreasing its durability and shortening the lifespan of infrastructures such as bridges and nuclear waste containment vessels.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) online Early Edition the week of June 15, researchers say that concrete creep (the technical term for the time-dependent deformation that occurs in concrete when it is subjected to load) is caused by the rearrangement of particles at the nanoscale.

“Finally, we can explain how creep occurs,” said Professor Franz-Josef Ulm, co-author of the PNAS paper. “We can’t prevent creep from happening, but if we slow the rate at which it occurs, this will increase concrete’s durability and prolong the life of the structures. Our research lays the foundation for rethinking concrete engineering from a nanoscopic perspective.”

This research comes at a time when the American Society of Civil Engineers has assigned an aggregate grade of D to U.S. infrastructure, much of which is made of concrete. It likely will lead to concrete infrastructure capable of lasting hundreds of years rather than tens, which will bring enormous cost-savings and decreased concrete-related CO2 emissions. An estimated 5 to 8 percent of all human-generated atmospheric CO2 worldwide comes from the concrete industry.

Ulm, who has spent nearly two decades studying the mechanical behavior of concrete and its primary component, cement paste, has in the past several years focused on its nanostructure. This led to his publication of a paper in 2007 that said the basic building block of cement paste at the nanoscale — calcium-silicate-hydrates, or C-S-H — is granular in nature. The paper explained that C-S-H naturally self-assembles at two structurally distinct but chemically similar phases when mixed with water, each with a fixed packing density close to one of the two maximum densities allowed by nature for spherical objects (64 percent for the lower density and 74 percent for high).

In the new research revealed in the PNAS paper, Ulm and co-author Matthieu Vandamme explain that concrete creep comes about when these nanometer-sized C-S-H particles rearrange into altered densities: some looser and others more tightly packed.

They also explain that a third, more dense phase of C-S-H can be induced by carefully manipulating the cement mix with other minerals such as silica fumes, a waste material of the aluminum industry. These reacting fumes form additional smaller particles that fit into the spaces between the nanogranules of C-S-H, spaces that were formerly filled with water. This has the effect of increasing the density of C-S-H to up to 87 percent, which in turn greatly hinders the movement of the C-S-H granules over time.

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