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Is Recycled Concrete a Viable Option?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

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When it comes to sustainability and reuse in construction, can the industry begin to do more with recycled concrete? A University of Notre Dame research team is focusing on just that question.

The researchers, led by Yahya “Gino” Kurama, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences, are looking into the feasibility of recycling concrete from U.S. infrastructure projects into material for use in new buildings and bridges, according to a recent university statement.

Their work examines the impact of concrete use on the environment, restrictions for use and performance.

Reduce, Recycle, Reuse

Kurama hopes his research will ultimately help to reduce the demands on the environment by decreasing the need for the natural coarse aggregates.

© / karenhermann

A research team from the University of Notre Dame is looking into the feasibility of recycling concrete from U.S. infrastructure projects into material for use in new buildings and bridges.

“While concrete is the most commonly used construction material on earth, it is also the biggest in terms of environmental impact,” Kurama says.

He explains that the coarse aggregates (crushed rock and gravel) in concrete comprise the bulk of its volume. “The mining, processing and transportation operations for these aggregates consume large amounts of energy and adversely affect the ecology of forested areas and riverbeds,” he adds.

As our nation tackles its aging infrastructure in the coming years, undertaking demolition and renovation projects, construction crews will both require new concrete for construction while producing old concrete that is ripe for reuse.

“We need to be better prepared to utilize this growing resource at a higher level, which is what my research is focused on,” Kurama says.

He explains that the bulk of research prior to this, as well as current practices related to the sustainable use of structural concrete, has focused on the partial replacement of cement with industrial byproducts, such as fly ash, slag and silica fume.

“In comparison, conservation of coarse aggregates has been largely ignored in the U.S., resulting in a big knowledge gap related to this material,” Kurama says.

Variability vs. Structural Integrity

The biggest challenge to using recycled concrete in construction is the uncertainty about quality, the team says. Variability in the recycled material’s properties would have an impact on the strength, stiffness and durability of reinforced concrete structures.

This variability currently restricts the use of recycled concrete to nonstructural installations that don’t bear a lot of weight, like a sidewalk or highways, as opposed to a bridge or building. However, Kurama points out that the quality of the material in these applications is generally notably higher than typically required.

© / unkas_photo

The variability in recycled concrete currently restricts its use to nonstructural installations that don’t bear a lot of weight, like a sidewalk or highways, as opposed to a bridge.

Kurama and his team are working with materials from a large number of sources in order to get a better understanding of variability in material quality and properties.

“Our initial research studied the variability from 16 recycled aggregate sources in the Midwest and quantified ways to pre-qualify the material for structural applications,” Kurama said.

Next Steps

Working in partnership with the University of Texas at Tyler and New Mexico State University, the group will be able to expand it study to many more sources from the eastern, southern, and southwestern U.S.

“We are also looking at durability and life-cycle cost, in comparison with natural aggregates, and effects of recycled concrete aggregates in pre-stressed concrete,” Kurama says.

The group’s past research looked at how recycled concrete affects the behavior of reinforced concrete structures, including deflection behavior, over time and under normal loads.

Now, according to Kurama, “Our ultimate goal is to develop the necessary engineering background and methods for the wider utilization of recycled concrete aggregates in structural concrete, such as in buildings.”


Tagged categories: Bridges; Building materials; Building science; Colleges and Universities; Concrete defects; Infrastructure; Recycled building materials; Research and development

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/17/2016, 8:47 AM)

"Largely ignored"? Most DOTs recycle crushed concrete. TxDOT alone uses about a million tons a year. If you look at this old FHWA study, in 2002 38 out of 50 states were recycling concrete as aggregate. It's only gone up since then.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/17/2016, 8:47 AM)

Comment from Michael Breaux, (2/17/2016, 10:21 AM)

It looks like that was mentioned by the comment regarding recycled concrete being used on highways. Their research may result in the same attitude regarding the reuse of concrete for structures as that for roads which should be a positive. The construction industry may not put much emphasis on recycled materials and recycling which, if recycled materials are adequate/proper, this may help solve.

Comment from chris atkins, (2/18/2016, 3:34 AM)

Try here for UK inf.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (2/18/2016, 11:13 AM)

Yup...local city here has been recycling concrete and aggregate since 1978 and claims to recycle 98% of aggregate rubble here. May not be in structural roles, but it holds up fine to Canadian winters:

Comment from Jessie Harrison, (4/11/2016, 6:12 PM)

There's a big patch of concrete in my yard that I want removed. I wasn't aware that come companies will reuse concrete. If that's the case I want to recycle my concrete. Clearly I don't want nor do I need it, so this is the perfect opportunity.

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