A team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Northwestern University has shed new light on cement. Their discoveries, reported this week in Nature Materials, ultimately may lead to improvements in the formulation and use of cement that could save hundreds of millions of dollars in annual maintenance and repair costs for concrete structures and the country’s infrastructure.
More than 11 billion metric tons of cement are consumed each year. However, questions still remain as to just how cement works, in particular how it is structured at the nano- and microscale, and how this structure affects its performance.
Cement requires just the right amount of water to form properly. Technically cement is held together by a gel, a complex network of nanoparticles called calcium silicate hydrate (C-S-H) that binds a significant amount of water within its structure. Once the cement has set, the C-S-H structure retains a tough, unchanging integrity for centuries, even in contact with water. To date, attempts to pinpoint the amounts and different roles of water within the C-S-H in cement paste have required taking the water out, either by drying or chemical methods. The NIST/Northwestern researchers instead combined structural data from small-angle neutron scattering experiments at the NIST Center for Neutron Research and from an ultrasmall-angle X-ray scattering instrument built by NIST at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory. Their experiments are the first to classify water by its location in the cured cement.
As a result, the researchers were able to distinguish, and measure, the difference between water physically bound within the internal structure of the solid C-S-H nanoparticles and adsorbed, or liquid water between the nanoparticles. They also measured a nanoscale calcium hydroxide structure that co-exists with the C-S-H gel. The new data, which imply significantly different values for the formula and density of the C-S-H gel than previously supposed, have implications for defining the chemically active surface area within cement, and for predicting concrete properties. They also may lead to a better understanding of the contribution of the nanoscale structure of cement to its durability, and how to make improvements.