Self-Healing Concrete: What Ancient Roman Concrete Can Teach Us

Concrete is an incredibly useful and versatile building material on which not only today’s societies, but also the ancient Roman Empire was built. To this day Roman concrete structures can be found in mundane locations such as harbors, but also the Pantheon in Rome, which to this day forms the largest unreinforced concrete dome in existence at 43.3 meters diameter, and is in excellent condition despite being being nearly 1,900 years old.

Even as the Roman Empire fell and receded into what became the Byzantine – also known as the Eastern Roman – Empire and the world around these last remnants of Roman architecture changed and changed again, all of these concrete structures remained despite knowledge of how to construct structures like them being lost to the ages. Perhaps the most astounding thing is that even today our concrete isn’t nearly as durable, despite modern inventions such as reinforcing with rebar.

Reverse-engineering ancient Roman concrete has for decades now been the source of intense study and debate, with a recent paper by Linda M. Seymour and colleagues adding an important clue to the puzzle. Could so-called ‘hot mixing’, with pockets of reactive lime clasts inside the cured concrete provide self-healing properties?

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Geopolymer Concrete, Perfecting Roman Technology Today

For all the things Romans got wrong (lead pipes anyone?) did you know we’re still using a less advanced concrete than they did? Consider some of the massive structures in Rome that have passed the test of time, lasting for more than 2000 years. The typical concrete that we use in construction starts to degrade after only 50 years.

Researchers at Berkeley think they’ve finally figured it out with thanks to a sample that was removed from the Pozzuoli Bay near Naples, Italy. This could vastly improve the durability of modern concrete, and even reduce the carbon footprint from making it. The downside is a longer curing time, and resource allocation — it wouldn’t be possible to completely replace modern cement due to the limited supply of fly ash (an industrial waste product produced by burning coal). Their research can be found in a few articles, however they are both behind pay walls.

Lucky for us, and the open source community at large, someone from MIT has also been working on perfecting the formula — and he’s shared his results thus far.

So, who wants to give it a shot? Any material scientists in our midst?