We know that concrete is a remarkable material, becoming ever more versatile, due to innovative additives, technological advances and inspirational designers looking for a different medium.
One of the oldest and most commonplace materials across the globe, it is cheap, strong and easily made.
But concrete is also becoming smarter.
Concrete is a composite material, made up essentially of Portland cement, water and aggregate, pretty much the same main ingredients as in ancient times.
Professor Deborah Chung from State University of New York at Buffalo, US, is working on an innovative process that can give this old, versatile mixture a bit of modern technology.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, Professor Chung has invented a new composite material by adding carbon fibres to concrete. Carbon fibres conduct electricity and by including these in the mix, Professor Chung was able to add electrical impulses to the concrete structure, effectively making the concrete a sensor.
Currently, human inspection is required to check concrete structures such as skyscrapers, bridges and car parks for signs of fractures or cracks. Sensors can also be attached or embedded into buildings, which can be costly. These measures are however reactive – so after the cracks have occurred.
Smart concrete would allow the construction of structures that are able to detect even minute changes in the amount of stress inside by self-monitoring for signs of cracks or stress. As pressure is applied to a slab of concrete it becomes compressed and the electrical properties of the slab change. With Smart Concrete scientists can measure the exact amount that the concrete changes when exposed to a massive amount of weight.
And with the ability to precisely monitor the hidden stress within, engineers would be able to troubleshoot weak spots in their structures long before a crack is ever visible to the human eye. Thus action can be taken proactively to prevent extensive damage.
Smart concrete has not made it to market yet, but there is likely to be multiple uses for the new innovation such as traffic monitoring, building security, facilities management and weighing in motion.
The invention of Smart Concrete is another example of how innovation can enhance and adapt materials that has been around for centuries for use in a more modern environment.