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“Develop flexibility and you will be firm; cultivate yielding and you will be strong.” This saying of the Ancient Chinese philosopher Liezi is relevant not only for people — Liezi’s target audience — but for building materials, which also collapse under pressure when they lack the ability to yield.
Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have taken this lesson to heart, developing a bendable concrete that could revolutionize architecture. The product, called ConFlexPave, integrates polymer microfibers into the liquid mixture in order to produce a stronger, more flexible material. The added strength-to-size ratio would allow the manufacture of thin, prefabricated concrete slabs that could be included in any number of architectural projects.
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“We developed a new type of concrete that can greatly reduce the thickness and weight of precast pavement slabs, hence enabling speedy plug-and-play installation, where new concrete slabs prepared off-site can easily replace worn-out ones,” explained NTU Professor Chu Jian, who leads the University-affiliated NTU-JTC Industrial Infrastructure Innovation Centre (I³C), which spearheaded the project.
The team’s breakthrough came when they examined the molecular structure of concrete, which is a cured mixture of water, gravel and sand. By doing this, they were able to find just the right fibers to add to the mix that would allow the material to withstand tension and avoid cracking over time.
“With detailed understanding, we can then deliberately select ingredients and engineer the tailoring of components, so our final material can fulfill specific requirements needed for road and pavement applications,” explained Professor Yang En-Hua from NTU’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The hard materials give a nonslip surface texture, while the microfibers, which are thinner than the width of a human hair, distribute the load across the whole slab, resulting in a concrete that is tough as metal and at least twice as strong as conventional concrete under bending,” he added.
In addition to improving strength and flexibility, there is evidence that the new material is skid resistant, as well. The development team intends to test this material over the next three years to gain a deeper sense of the possibilities it offers.
In general, concrete has a more interesting history than people tend to realize. Early uses of concrete date back to 6500 B.C., but its possibilities weren’t fully exploited until the Classical Era, when the Romans used it to sculpt the dome of the Pantheon and reinforce various sections of the aqueducts. After the fall of the Roman Empire, concrete fell out of vogue until it was rediscovered during the Industrial Revolution, a period that also saw the development of reinforced concrete. A combination of cement and steel beams, reinforced concrete allowed for the construction of massive buildings at low cost, catalyzing a true revolution in architecture.
ConFlexPave’s bendable concrete might be the start of a new chapter in the history of this ubiquitous material. Only time will tell what opportunities this development will bring.
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