It’s all around us. Under foot, in the walls, and often overhead. It’s humans’ second most-used substance, just after water.
And most of us rarely give it a thought. It is so useful and ever-present that we take it for granted.
From the great pyramids of Egypt in 3000 BC and the Coliseum in Rome in 80 AD to Hoover Dam in the 1930s and our interstate highways in the 1960s, concrete in its various forms has been fundamental to human development, Dr. Heather J. Brown told the Rotary Club of McMinnville at its Thursday luncheon program.
Brown chairs MTSU’s School of Concrete and Construction Management, an innovative academic program that focuses on the newest technologies in concrete while giving its undergraduate students extensive field experience in actual construction work. She earned a BS, MS and PhD in civil engineering at Tennessee Tech, where she began her research and teaching career before joining the MTSU faculty in 2001.
“Each person uses an average of 600 pounds of cement every year,” Brown said, underscoring the per-capita demand for construction and maintenance work. “Water is the most used material in the world. Concrete is second, but it’s first among building products.”
Among the exotic but promising new products under study at MTSU is bendable concrete. With this material, engineers could build bridges with a 100-year lifespan with little or no maintenance. “This will revolutionize our industry,” she predicted.
Concrete is strong, durable and versatile. In fact, Brown said, creative architects are lighting up lived-in spaces with fiber optic-imbedded concrete for a glow-on-the-dark effect. Translucent concrete offers a whole new range of opportunities for decorative and practical applications.
While we generally think of concrete construction in commercial and institutional buildings, more and more private homes are being built with precast panels or insulated pour-in-place forms. One of her projected visuals showed a residential neighborhood just after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast.
The aerial photo showed a dozen or so lots where the storm surge had obliterated homes that once sheltered families. The lone building left standing was a two-story concrete residence that appeared almost untouched by the ravages of wind and water.
Much of the concrete in use today contains industrial byproducts that otherwise would be a burden to our landfills and might pose health and environmental risks, Brown noted. Fly ash from coal burning electric power plants constitutes a substantial portion of these materials, and many hazardous and toxic chemicals can be safety and durably sequestered in concrete. Slag from steel manufacturing is another common constituent of high-strength concrete.
Brown expands on her insights into high-tech concrete when she appears this week on the “Focus” series of interviews on McMinnville public radio WCPI 91.3. The half-hour interview with the MTSU professor airs Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 5 p.m.; Wednesday at 5:05 a.m.; Thursday at 1 p.m.; and Friday at 1:05 a.m.