From the looks of the average driveway or sidewalk, it may seem as though concrete is just destined to crack. But if concrete is so prone to cracking, how are we able to use it in so many high-stress applications like bridges and skyscrapers? This question came about while I was researching 3D-printed thermite for an article. Thermite is often used in welding railroad tracks, and I linked a video of fresh tracks being welded that had concrete ties. I knew I had to find out how concrete could be made to withstand the pressure of freight trains.
On its own, concrete is brittle and has no give to it at all. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t strong. Although concrete has good compression strength, the tensile strength is quite poor. Around the late 1800s, someone thought to fortify spans of concrete with steel reinforcing bars, better known as rebar. Steel can stretch, adding steel bars gives the concrete some tensile strength to go along with its compressive strength. Rebar also allows for thinner slabs and other members.
Rebar Only Goes So Far
Rebar or mesh-enforced concrete is good for things like parking lot blocks and roads, but it still fails before it ought to. In fact, it usually has to crack before the rebar can chip in any of its tensile strength.
In high-stress concrete applications like bridges and skyscrapers, it’s terrifically important to avoid deflection — that’s when a concrete member flexes and bends under load. Deflection can cause the modern glass skins to pop off of skyscrapers, among other problems.
A solid, rigid bridge is much nicer to walk, drive, and bicycle on than a bridge that sways in the breeze. But how do you do make a rigid bridge? One solution is to apply stresses to the concrete before it ever bears the load of cars and trucks or a steady schedule of freight trains.
Pre-stressed concrete is like rebar-enforced concrete, but with the added power of tension baked in. By adding stress to the concrete before it goes into service, deflection will be reduced or perhaps eliminated altogether. With the addition of tensile strength, more of the concrete’s own strength is able to come into play.