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Bendy concrete could save disaster-hit structures

Flexible concrete

Seashell-inspired bendy concrete could help prevent massive infrastructure damage sustained during disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

Researchers at the University of Michigan are examining how flexible concrete known as engineered cementitious composite (ECC) can be used in high-risk areas.

The flexible concrete is less likely to crack under pressure, which could reduce carbon released during frequent repairs and avoid costly damage to infrastructure during natural disasters.

An extrudable ECC for use in the extrusion of pipes was first developed in 1998. The latest form of the concrete can bend under stress, giving it a tensile strain capacity 300 to 500 times greater than normal concrete.

University of Michigan civil engineering professor Victor C. Li said the bendy concrete could also regulate its heat and break down airborne pollutants, making it ideal to develop smart infrastructure which reacts to its surroundings.

He added: “Our goal is to create a new generation of smart, bendable concrete that will help build and maintain a resilient, sustainable and healthy living environment.”

Northern California is overdue an earthquake, and there are fears that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake along the eastern Hayward Fault would “devastate” infrastructure in the area. Researchers claim that ECC would mitigate the impact of such a disaster. 

But Li cautioned ECC could be difficult to roll out as engineers are trained to believe concrete cannot cope under stress, and may not trust a flexible version.

Seashells inspired the research, as nacre – the material inside a shell known as mother of pearl – protects the brittle shell with a brick-like structure of hard cells glued together with an elastic filler, which allows enough movement for the shell to bend under stress.

Li’s research team copied the flexibility of nacre by adding tiny fibres to the gravel, sand and cement mix, making a concrete with more give than usual.

The team is hoping ECC will lead to more resilient infrastructure which can cope under stress from natural and man-made disasters, such as an earthquake or terror attack.

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