Cracking concrete

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

​Given its importance in our lives, concrete doesn’t get a great deal of appreciation. We tend to take it for granted even as it supports our most important infrastructure.

This is in part because concrete is unglamorous, but also because it has a tendency to look less than lovely. This can often be due to the fact that it deteriorates over time. This is because traditional concrete has a flaw, it tends to crack when subjected to tension.

Concrete will continue to be the most important building material for infrastructure but most concrete structures are prone to cracking. Tiny cracks on the surface of the concrete make the whole structure vulnerable because water seeps in to degrade the concrete and corrode the steel reinforcement, greatly reducing the lifespan of a structure.

Concrete can withstand compressive forces very well but not tensile forces. When it is subjected to tension it starts to crack, which is why it is reinforced with steel; to withstand the tensile forces. Structures built in a high water environment, such as underground basements and marine structures, are particularly vulnerable to corrosion of steel reinforcement.

Motorway bridges are also vulnerable because salts used to de-ice the roads penetrate into the cracks in the structures and can accelerate the corrosion of steel reinforcement. In many civil engineering structures tensile forces can lead to cracks and these can occur relatively soon after the structure is built. Repair of conventional concrete structures usually involves applying a concrete mortar which is bonded to the damaged surface.

Sometimes, the mortar needs to be keyed into the existing structure with metal pins to ensure that it does not fall away. Repairs can be particularly time consuming and expensive because it is often very difficult to gain access to the structure to make repairs, especially if they are underground or at a great height.

This month’s challenge

This month’s challenge, then, is to devise a way in which concrete can be repaired quickly, easily and safely – ideally without human intervention, in fact.

As ever, we have a solution in mind, but we’d love to hear what you think could work.


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Coffee Time Challenge is just a bit of fun, but it is based on a real engineering solution. If you send in your ideas by using the comment button below, we can add your solution as an alternative – perhaps something funny, practical, cheap or, of course, innovative.

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