New Concrete Developments for Smart, Sustainable Building

Concrete is evolving for the construction industry. As the second most widely used material in the world—only after water, according to the World Economic Forum—concrete is used on nearly every type of construction project from bridges to high-rise buildings.

Today, the material is becoming self-healing, self-sensing, sustainable and intelligent, enabling smarter structures to be built. This is in line with research from Technavio, which shows global ultra-high performance concrete will grow seven percent between this year and 2022.

Drilling a bit further, and we can see reactive powder concrete is an evolving composite material, and it is expected to witness the highest growth rate in the global ultra-high performance concrete market. Technavio suggests this type of concrete has increased durability, high strength and the ability to withstand high load and pressure. There are a number of reasons for this growth including:

  • allowing for optimized material use
  • economic benefits
  • environmental benefits

Today, two big trends are emerging when it comes to advances in concrete: sustainability and intelligence. For the construction industry, these advances in concrete will change the way work is done on the jobsite. Ultimately, these changes will transform the long-term maintenance of structures from bridges, roads and high-rises.

Sustainable Solutions for the Construction Industry

Many organizations are now focused on reducing the environmental impact of concrete. For example, in 2008, over in the United Kingdom, the Concrete Industry Sustainable Construction Strategy was born to achieve a common framework of industry-wide reporting and an ambition of continuous improvement.

Late last year, the ninth Concrete Industry Sustainability Performance Report states that controlling and managing the environmental impacts of procuring materials and manufacturing products is an essential requirement for sustainable development. Also, product consistency, performance, and being fit for purpose are crucial to sustainability; and not mention ensuring that materials are not rejected or potentially wasted.

“Globally, the increased emphasis on sustainable solutions for the construction industry is clearly impacting the cement and concrete industries,” explains Tom Schuler, president and CEO, Solidia. “All of the major cement companies are working diligently to not only develop ways to reduce their environmental footprints, but do so in a way that allows them to add value to and differentiate their product offerings. 

He explains that the focus is on higher performance kilns, alternate fuels and blending with secondary cementitious materials (SCMs) like slag and flash has made an impact, but hasn’t been able to close the gap to the goals they are working to achieve. 

At the same time, concrete customers are responding to customer demands for more sustainable products by using alternate binders. 

“They’re also using added value treatment options that change concrete’s traditional gray color to textured, colorful aesthetics through pigment additions, physical alternation to the surface (tumbling, shot blasting, etc.), and post production coatings to provide consumers alternatives to other materials like stone and even wood,” he says.

Schuler adds that many of these trends are being led by the much more developed European markets—and U.S. companies look to them for differentiation and leadership.

By significantly reducing the industry’s need for energy and water to produce the cement and concrete, companies like Solidia are helping to broaden its sustainable impact on the industry as a whole.

Concrete Gets Smart

Another growing trend is that the construction industry will see more implementation of multifunctional concretes, which are typically accompanied by intelligent or functional behaviors.

“Multifunctional concretes that serve both structural and nonstructural functions have evolved from concretes that are purely structural materials,” explains Deborah Chung, professor, University of Buffalo. “For example, self-sensing concrete can sense its own condition (stress, strain, damage, etc.) without any embedded or attached sensor.”

Chung specializes in materials science and engineering, particularly smart materials, concrete, thermal management, battery electrode materials and more. One of the challenges she points to is the development of multifunctional concrete requires expertise in the functional properties of materials such as the electrical properties.

“Functional properties are an area of science that is foreign to most concrete experts,” she continues, but adds that more implementation of multifunctional concrete is expected.

According to an article written for World Economic Forum by Abir Al-Tabbaa, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Cambridge, concrete has long suffered from being perceived as fundamentally cheap and a straightforward commodity, but cannot be perceived as that for two key reasons.

First, for every person on the planet, approximately three metric tons of concrete are manufactured and used by the construction industry each year. The production of cement is the most common to make concrete, and is responsible for up to eight percent of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The second reason is that concrete will play a more fundamental role in infrastructure in the future. Self-healing concrete can help monitor and repair automatically.

Looking beyond the material itself, new technology companies have been emerging all across the globe aimed at developing smart concrete technologies. The National Research Council Canada points to the example of two Canadian researchers, Aali Alizadeh and Pouria Ghods, who have founded Giatech Scientific Inc., which is working on smart concrete technologies that can assess various parameters in concrete structures in real time, including hardening and corrosion.

In this case, a combination of wireless concrete sensors and mobile apps provide information to contractors who need to make decisions at the jobsite about projects. At the same time, it has developed non-destructive testing technologies that can help engineers manage civil infrastructure by allowing them to schedule maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement operations more efficiently.

According to Transparency Market Research, while embedding sensors into structures is growing, they do cost more to install and smart concrete itself is relatively more affordable.

Concrete is changing—whether it is the material itself or associated technologies that are leveraged to help with monitoring. The construction industry will help build smart, sustainable structures that are capable of sensing structural flaws before they become detrimental.

This is, in turn, changing how work is done at the construction jobsite. Contractors are now interacting with new materials and technologies that are transforming how work is managed out in the field.

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