One of man’s oldest building materials is finding its way into a lot of new places these days. Concrete, first discovered by the Romans, is now more widely used in construction than all other materials together.
The magic ingredient that makes concrete possible is cement, about which, according to one expert, more has been learnt in the past three decades than in the preceding 2000 years. Concrete is a synthetic stone which can be formed while soft into practically any shape the builder wants. Portland cement mixed with water is the paste that binds sand ,gravel, clinker into artificial rock that becomes harder as the years pass. Portland cement does not come from a place of that name; it was called Portland because Joseph Aspdin the English builder who invented the first dependable, scientifically made cement about 1824, thought it resembled the rock excavated on the Isle of Portland on the Dorset Coast.
What’s so news about cement after all these years? Several things. One item is “ squeezed” concrete, known technically as pre-stressed concrete. By giving concrete a big squeeze after it has hardened, the builders can increase its elasticity ten times, so that it will bend under a heavy load without breaking. This is important in building bridges, viaducts, and floors of large buildings.
The simplest way to pre-stress concrete is to put steel wires or rods in the concrete when it is poured.
An unusual American use of reinforced concrete is the floating highway bridge across Lake Washington. The depth of the lake made piers too expensive, so engineers built the bridge on hollow concrete pontoons anchored in place by steel cables. It is the longest pontoon bridge structure on earth.
Until recently, the aim of engineers was to make concrete with as few bubbles as possible. Now they have come up with a new concrete that has millions of microscopic bubbles per cubic foot. It is made by adding an agent which foams to form the bubbles when the concrete is mixed. This concrete doesn’t crack when freezing. The first” air bubble” roads were built many years ago. They have stood up under winter freezes so well that today this concrete is used for new road construction. Another discovery is “soil cement”. Several years ago road builders lacking funds found that they could mix cement with soil on the site of the road, wet it and compact it, then cover it with bitumen. The first road they built is still carrying traffic. There are miles of soil-cement secondary roads and streets in the U.S. today. Construction goes so fast that with modern equipment a road builder can complete a mile of soil cement road in one day.
Scientists are working on research into the behaviour of cement and concrete under all kinds of conditions. Collaborating with engineers they are developing new ways of using concrete. Cement is changing the face of the earth..