When I began researching concrete for last month’s EBN feature article "Reducing Environmental Impacts of Cement and Concrete," one of my goals was to figure out how toxins are bound within concrete’s structure. I naively assumed that after over the 2000 years or so that concrete’s been in use, we had figured out everything there is to know about the material. How wrong I was.
Turns out that concrete’s crystalline structure was only just discovered in 2009 by researchers at MIT. It’s a major breakthrough but only the first step toward understanding concrete’s true carbon footprint and how cement interacts with ingredients like fly ash. “Concrete is a complicated material with a disorganized atomic structure,” according to Hamlin Jennings, executive director of MIT’s newly formed Concrete Sustainability Hub. Funded by the Portland Cement Association to the tune of 10 million dollars over the next five years and with technical assistance from the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, among others, the team’s research is “at the edge of modern computational ability” and employs a team of scientists from diverse fields not typically associated with concrete. One of the research center’s goals is to map the molecular structure of concrete to improve its environmental footprint, performance, and allow for predictive performance computer modeling of mixes without expensive and time-consuming testing. “On the molecular modeling side, it’s the best team ever put together,” said Jennings.
Perhaps the research investment is simply an acknowledgment of the cement industry’s need to adapt to rising fuel costs, stricter emissions regulations, and a changing building industry, but the center’s mission is forward thinking by any measure, especially for an industry with a history of being conservative and slow to change. I’m looking forward to tracking the progress of their research in the upcoming years. Hopefully the investment will pay off and we’ll see the materials breakthrough needed to minimize the environmental problems posed by current portland cement production.
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