New bendable concrete could help buildings better survive earthquakes

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A team has created a new way to produce bendable concrete.
Image: Swinburne University of Technology

Concrete has become one of the most influential creations of all time. It is used in roads, buildings, pipes, and much more. Many believe that it is the most commonly used man-made material on Earth. However, it isn’t perfect.

For instance, under the teeth-rattling conditions of a high-magnitude earthquake, it can crack and crumble. This leaves buildings vulnerable during natural disasters. Fortunately, a team of researchers from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne have an idea. Taking inspiration from the Ancient Romans, they have created a new sort of bendable concrete that could stand up to shaking forces during an earthquake.

Learning from the Past

While human technology has improved exponentially since the days of Ancient Rome, the brilliance of their engineers cannot be understated. Putting this on prime display is the building material that they often chose to work with. The Romans created a custom mix of volcanic ash and quicklime to create a concrete-like substance whose chemical properties actually make it stronger over time. That’s the reason why many of Rome’s structures still stand today.

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Now, modern scientists are hoping to replicate a bit of that ingenuity. The team from Swinburne incorporated their own form of volcanic ash—fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal to create electricity—into their mixture. However, they then took things a step further.

The team managed to incorporate synthetic polymer fibers into their concrete to give it added strength and flexibility. More importantly, they were able to devise a method of curing the concrete without heating the mix. That is huge when it comes to cutting back on energy expenditure.

A video from Swinburne shows two slabs of concrete being compressed by a hydraulic press. The regular concrete gives way rather easily, breaking into two pieces. However, the new bendable concrete flexes an extraordinary amount without breaking at all.

The team claims that it is approximately 400 times more bendable than traditional concrete. That sort of flexibility could help structures built with it survive earthquakes far better than those built with non-bendable concrete.

Making it Practical

It’s worth noting that bendable concrete isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s been around since the ‘90s when Dr. Victor Li, a civil engineer, came up with it. Unfortunately, it has never caught on because producing the material is too expensive for practical applications. As of last year, Dr. Li’s mixture was four times more costly than regular concrete.

That’s what the new approach from Swinburne hopes to change. Since it uses a byproduct of the coal industry, the material costs are a little cheaper to begin with. Meanwhile, because no heat is required, the team claims that its method uses 36 percent less energy than the traditional concrete making process. Due to that, it emits 76 percent less carbon dioxide.

While the widespread use of bendable concrete is still a few years away, this new approach could help shorten that timeline. It could also ease the pain of the transition by giving companies positive aspects to focus on like fewer emissions and less energy use.

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