How can we make concrete strong and gentle?
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Almost every urban structure – buildings, roads, sidewalks – contains cement. Cement is the glue that holds concrete together. Without it, cities and towns wouldn’t exist. It enables amazing feats of engineering that we rely on for comfort and prosperity.

Ancient Romans were masters of cement and concrete structures. Their temples, bridges, and aqueducts still stand today.

Many centuries on, it would be logical to conclude that we know everything we need to know about cement. But this unassuming grey powder’s properties are still not fully understood. This posed an irresistible challenge to Lakehead University researchers Lionel Catalan and Stephen Kinrade.

They are experimenting with different substances and compounds with the goal of making a better concrete.

“We get surprises everyday – some good and some bad,” Catalan says. “When things don’t work the way you expect them to, you try to figure out why and you find out new things in the process.”

Catalan, Kinrade, and their student researchers have discovered that using sugar alcohol molecules, also called polyols, allows reductions of up to 40% in the amount of cement used in concrete without diminishing its strength. This makes concrete both substantially cheaper to produce and also much more environmentally-friendly. Approximately 7% of human caused greenhouse gases are generated by the production of cement.

The economic and environmental benefits of Catalan and Kinrade’s breakthrough don’t end there. The polyols these researchers are using can be found in the waste byproducts of pulp and paper mills. This means that the amount of liquid waste going into water treatment plants will be decreased, pulp and paper mills will have an additional source of revenue, and less pressure will be placed on rivers and lakes.

Catalan and Kinrade are now working with Lakehead and GreenCentre Canada to set up patents and commercialize their new, greener cement.

“Many of us take for granted that fundamental role concrete plays in society. It provides us with our homes, avenues of transportation and places of work, education and recreation,” says GreenCentre’s Executive Director Rui Resendes.

Not taking things for granted has put Catalan and Kinrade on the cusp of revolutionizing the construction industry.

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