Ever wondered if it would be possible to plug directly into a building's foundations and get an up-to-date and concise reading on its current structural integrity and the overall condition of its concrete? Thanks to Professor Deborah Chung of the State University of New York, the future is not that far off…
After decades of research, Chung - who has expertise in composite materials and structural science - has made a breakthrough regarding an age-old problem facing the concrete structures that seem to pop up continuously on our every horizon.
Over time, concrete is known to crack and deteriorate due to the stresses put on it. What’s worse, is that concrete can degrade and become weaker in certain areas without this being readily apparent. Many commercial buildings have faults and cracks that manifest below the surface and remain invisible to the naked eye for quite some time before the problems become obvious.
In attempt to address the above issues, Chung wondered what would happen if she added a new material, carbon fiber, to concrete. Carbon fibers conduct electricity and consist of tiny strands of carbon atoms. In early tests, Chung discovered that if she added carbon fibers to concrete, the electrical properties of the structure would change. The fibers don't need to touch, instead their contact with the hardened cement allows the entire structure to conduct electricity.
With the addition of carbon fibers to the concrete mix, researchers have confirmed that the dried concrete is then able to conduct electricity regardless of the exact layout of the concrete’s molecular structure. Now this may concern you on some level: “Will I get shocked if I touch my wall?” you may be asking yourself… But "Smart Concrete" as Chung aptly refers to it, has many potential applications and none of them will cause you any harm whatsoever!
To summarise, the added fibres affect the electrical properties of the concrete, not only making it more conductive, but also allowing it to have its own electrical resistance change, in response to damage or degradation. That, in essence, is what allows the the concrete to act as a sort of sensor. When used with the correct equipment, this can then allow the user to detect even minute changes in the amount of stress inside the structure and thus save countless man-hours and tedious building inspections.
This is more than just a breakthrough. “Smart Concrete” is a clear example of how modern technology and an innovative approach can enhance a material that has been in use for millennia.
For the full story and an explanatory video produced by NBC LEARN and the NSF