Magazine article Foreign Policy

Rock Solid

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Rock Solid

Article excerpt

THE WORLD USES TWICE as much concrete every year as steel, aluminum, plastic, and wood combined. Concrete is tough, easy to work with, and durable--but nothing lasts forever. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that it would cost more than $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring U.S. infrastructure up to good repair.

Now scientists and engineers at three British universities--Bath, Cambridge, and Cardiff--are teaming up to create new types of "smart" concrete. Inspired by biological processes that help skin regenerate, these materials could heal themselves by oozing to fill in holes or by stretching to quickly cover cracks.

At Cambridge, Abir Al-Tabbaa and her colleagues have created microcapsules containing mineral-based healing agents that act like scar tissue in human bodies. The capsules would be mixed into cement before pouring, and when the first tiny crack appeared in a concrete structure, admitting air and water, the plastic microcapsules would split open. This would deliver a dose of methyl methacrylate, the bone cement used by orthopedic surgeons to secure metal hip and knee replacements. The process would reoccur whenever concrete became stressed or damaged. …

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