Concrete is a considerably second most used substance in material research and development after water. Centuries and centuries of building construction in different parts of the world ask for a substitutable option that could be more strong, porous and sustainable. Researchers at Rice University found a new way to “program” the molecule particles in the material. There have always been questions rising about the elasticity and flexibility of the materials- how could we sustain the properties while making concrete more bendable?

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Programmable cement particles Source- multiscale materials laboratory

A recent study describes how cement in concrete carbonizes carbon dioxide over time redefining the capability of the material to be environmentally friendly hence compelling to dive the researchers into micro-level study. A nano-study has been performed and observed where the focus is completely on Calcium-Silicate-Hydrate (C-S-H) and its synthesis to specific shapes. Rather than forming amorphous blocks (which they usually do), the blocks were turned into shapes like cubes, rectangular prisms, dendrites, core-shells and rhombohedra which has been able to pack the substance more tightly. The results came out to be consequently positive with being water-resistant and preventing the material from getting destroyed. Calcium Silicate plays a major role in forming the shapes of the element.

The researchers added surfactant compounds and calcium silicate with both positive or negative charge and then carbonizing it. Lesser of it would result in more spherical shapes while adding more would result in clumps of spheres and interlocking cubes.

The ‘crystal seeds’ formed on the surface define the elasticity of the material. The researchers were able to mould the shape, size and amount by adjusting these seed concentration, temperature, and duration of the process.

This data has been very helpful to the engineers and contractors around the world in determining the desired properties. This in-situ process doesn’t require assistance from any other seeds and additives to make it as desired and characteristic which is the beauty of this material.

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Different shapes. Source- multiscale materials laboratory

“Other research groups have tested bulk cement and concrete, but no group had ever probed the mechanics of single C-S-H particles and the effect of shape on mechanics of individual particles,” says Shahsavari.

Nanoindenter was used to test the strength of differently shaped particles which has a diamond tip to crush it into thousands of small particles which could then later be tested. Now talking about sustainability, concrete is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases in the construction industry. The researchers at Rice came up with several measures to create an awareness of how the material acts environment friendly.

  • It could be used lesser as its comparatively strong
  • Less porosity will make it harder for the invader materials to find a way through concrete hence making it more durable and water-resistant

This material being durable and less porous protects the inner steel reinforcement from getting attacked by any foreign materials. Concrete is one focus of Rice lab, which has studied both its macro-scale manufacture and minute nano-scale properties. Because concrete is the world’s most common construction material and an important source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the importance of developing “greener” concrete came out to even more essential.

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Programmable-cement. Source- Earth

There has been continuous research on new alternative materials our industry could shift to – transparent concrete or Ultra High Performance Concrete or Illuminating concrete or Self healing concrete. Considering the high embody energy of the concrete, we significantly could shift to more and more sustainable materials that could lead to lesser pollution and results to be a more ‘sustainable’ solution that the construction industry needs and Programmable Cement is that one solution to our universal problem.


Nishtha is a 23 years old Architecture Graduate from India currently working with an award-winning Architecture company based in Florida, USA. She is involved in various departments including Design, Management and Writing for their projects. Her participation in International Conferences and Summer Abroad Programs while exploring around the world, let her inner thoughts flow in having a Vision of helping others through architecture and that is how she wants to leave a mark wherever she goes.