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Researchers Use Natural Antifreeze in Concrete Study

Thursday, June 11, 2020

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At the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers have recently found that natural antifreeze proteins can minimize freeze-thaw damage and can increase the strength and durability of concrete. The new method can reportedly improve longevity in new infrastructure and decrease carbon emissions over its lifetime.

The research has since been published in Cell Reports Physical Science.

Using Nature’s Antifreeze

In nature, biomimetic molecules are antifreeze compounds found in Arctic and Antarctic organisms—such as plants, fish, insects and bacteria—that contain molecules that keep the organism from freezing by binding to the surface of ice crystals the moment they form.

According to UC, concrete experiences the same issue of ice crystal formation, which is why since the 1930s, small air bubbles have been put into concrete to protect it from expanding or flaking when undergoing water and ice crystal damage.

However, when trying to incorporate these natural antifreeze proteins, they unraveled or disintegrated, unable to hold outside of their natural environments. Additionally, concrete’s basic properties were no suitable home for the proteins, either.

University of Colorado Boulder

At the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers have recently found that natural antifreeze proteins can minimize freeze-thaw damage and can increase the strength and durability of concrete.

Learning this, Wil Srubar III, author of the new study and assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering, and his team used a synthetic molecule—polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA—that mimics antifreeze proteins properties, but is more stable.

The synthetic molecule was then combined with another non-toxic, robust molecule—polyethylene glycol—often used in the pharmaceutical industry to prolong the circulation time of drugs in the body. Through the molecular combination of two polymers, the university reported that the final result remained stable at a high pH and inhibited ice crystal growth.

“No one thinks about concrete as a high-tech material,” said Srubar. “But it’s a lot more high-tech than one might think. In the face of climate change, it is critical to pay attention to not only how we manufacture concrete and other construction materials that emit a lot of carbon dioxide in their production, but also how we ensure the long-term resilience of those materials.”

In substituting this concrete mixture for its traditional recipe of water, cement powder and various aggregates, like sand or gravel, the final product proves to have equivalent performance, higher strength, lower permeability and a longer lifespan.

Additionally, using the biomimetic molecule could also dramatically reduce cost, as it would no longer allow for salts and other chemicals to leach into the concrete, possibly inducing the corrosion of steel embedded within.

“The infrastructure which is designed today will be facing different climatic conditions in the future. In the coming decades, materials will be tested in a way they’ve never been before,” said Srubar. “So the concrete that we do make needs to last.

“Its manufacture, use and disposal have significant environmental consequences. The production of cement alone, the powder that we use to make concrete, is responsible for about 8% of our global CO2 emissions.”

The university notes that in order to meet Paris Agreement goals and keep global temperature increase well below 3.6 degrees F, the construction industry will have to decrease its emissions by 40% by 2030 and eliminate them altogether by 2050.

Although the research team has a petent pending, Srubar is hopes that the new method will enter the commercial market within the next five to 10 years.

Additional authors of the study include Shane Frazier, Anastasia Aday and Elizabeth Delesky in the Materials Science and Engineering Program; and Mohammad Matar and Jorge Osio-Norgaard in Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at CU Boulder.


Tagged categories: Building materials; Colleges and Universities; concrete; Infrastructure; NA; North America; Quality Control; Research and development

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (6/11/2020, 7:55 AM)

If you read the linked article, this is envisioned as an additive to traditional concrete, not substituting for the traditional ingredients of cement and aggregates. In addition, calling this "biomimetic" is quite a stretch. It's more "Vaguely inspired by" natural materials. The most common method to prevent freeze/thaw damage in concrete is cheap and environmentally friendly, proven for over 80 years: Controlled amounts of entrained air are incorporated into the concrete. Small amounts of additive are used to help achieve the right level of entrained air. Any new method would have to compete with the standard proven method in the industry, yet neither popular article even mentions it. If you dig into the actual scientific paper, the graph comparing this new method to entrained air is quite prominent and shows both methods are equally effective. Therefore, this new method is going to need to compete largely on price.

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (6/11/2020, 11:03 AM)

I'm still waiting for Elson Musk and Tesla to introduce the CyberDozer, CyberGrader, CyberRockTruck, CyberTrackHoe and different sized CyberCrane options to start us on the road to zero carbon dioxide emissions from construction by 2050.

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