by Frank Priscaro

Last month, an article on http://www.PhysOrg.com, “New methods are changing old materials,” by David L. Chandler, showcased some of the important research being done in the field of computational material science. The article described work being done at MIT to model the composition of concrete at the atomic level, thereby getting some insight into that material’s behavior over time. The people at MIT are particularly keen to understand the properties of cement liner and sandstone overlay of MIT’s Great Dome.

Good thing, too. Concrete just happens to be the most abundant substance on this planet, after water. And even though we’ve been using it since the Romans invented it thousands of years ago (seems the volcanic pumice in the region made for an excellent binding agent), we still don’t know very much about how it behaves. So knowing how it’s going with all that grey matter lying around is going to be essential to managing its lifecycle and not being unpleasantly surprised when it begins to fall apart.

I can think of a couple of important applications (at least to me) right off the top of my head. Since I live in California and spend a good bit of my life in the car, how about developing a “pothole-resistant” strain for city streets, or even a “quiet-ride” variety for freeways? Last post, I talked about the condition of the steel in our aging bridges, but I have to believe the condition of some of that concrete isn’t much better. Who doesn’t get a queasy feeling driving over a bridge and seeing an inordinate amount of crumbled concrete at various critical junctures? Although almost all of these bridges and roads were built before the computational material science technology was developed to really understand how they behave, there’s no reason in the world why that technology shouldn’t be applied now. It’s here, and it could be a vital tool for helping inspectors predict and prevent catastrophic failures. That technology is only going to get better, too, as more and more research on more and more materials is done, and we at VEXTEC applaud and encourage their efforts of MIT and other academic institutions. Concrete and steel may have been around for thousands of years, but now that we’ve developed the ability to understand them, it’s time to use it to do some serious remodeling, in every sense of the word.

— Frank Priscaro


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