Engineers Develop Self-Sensing Concrete Material


Engineers at the University of Pittsburgh have reportedly developed a new metamaterial concrete for smart civil infrastructure systems.

The research team is also partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation through Pitt’s IRISE Consortium to develop this material for use on state roads.

About the Research

According to Pitt’s press release, the researchers are reimaging the design of concrete, which dates back to the Roman Empire, for the 21st century. The new concept offers a lightweight and mechanically-tunable concrete system that has integrated energy harvesting and sensing functionality.

“Modern society has been using concrete in construction for hundreds of years, following its original creation by the ancient Romans,” said Amir Alavi, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt, who is the corresponding author on the study.

“Massive use of concrete in our infrastructure projects implies the need for developing a new generation of concrete materials that are more economical and environmentally sustainable, yet offer advanced functionalities. We believe that we can achieve all of these goals by introducing a metamaterial paradigm into the development of construction materials.”

Previously, Alavi’s team has developed self-aware metamaterials and explored their use in applications like smart implants. The latest study introduces the use of metamaterials in the creation of concrete, making it possible for the material to be specifically designed for its purpose.

Pitt reports that attributes like brittleness, flexibility and shapeability can be fine-tuned in the creation of the material, allowing builders to use less of the material without sacrificing strength or longevity. 

“This project presents the first composite metamaterial concrete with super compressibility and energy harvesting capability,” said Alavi.

“Such lightweight and mechanically tunable concrete systems can open a door to the use of concrete in various applications such as shock absorbing engineered materials at airports to help slow runaway planes or seismic base isolation systems.”

Additionally, the material can reportedly generate enough electricity to power roadside sensors. The electrical signals self-generated by the metamaterial concrete under mechanical excitations could also be used to monitor damage inside the concrete structure or to monitor earthquakes while reducing their impact on buildings, the university reports.

The concrete is composed of reinforced auxetic polymer lattices embedded in a conductive cement matrix. The composite structure induces contact-electrification between the layers when triggered mechanically.

Enhanced with graphene powder, the conductive cement serves as the electrode in the system. According to Pitt, experimental studies show that the material can compress up to 15% under cyclic loading and produce 330 μW of power.

The project also included researchers from Johns Hopkins University, New Mexico State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems. The paper, “Multifunctional Nanogenerator-Integrated Metamaterial Concrete Systems for Smart Civil Infrastructure,” was published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Other Pitt Swanson School of Engineering Research

In October of last year, it was reported that a project from the University of Pittsburgh is utilizing a drone to prepare a digital model and history of the construction of the new Fern Hollow Bridge. Believed to be the first of the kind in the country, the digital model project involves piloting a hexacopter drone for 11.5 minutes every two weeks to record photo and laser images of the construction progress.

The Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh at the beginning of 2022, and its replacement bridge opened in December to a single-lane of bi-direction traffic.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the goal is to have a 3D blueprint available over the life of the new structure so that engineers can look back at the construction to see how the project progressed, as well as what might have allowed future problems to develop.

The drone features a batter, propellors on each of the six wings, and a high-speed camera, a laser imaging, detection and ranging device (LiDAR) and a GPS bar to direct the drone and balance its orientation. Then, the drone reportedly takes flight on a preprogrammed, computerized route 165 feet high that involves three passes over the construction site to gather information.

Afterwards, the team reviews the information the drone gathered during the flight and adds it to the database, where a computer combines the LIDAR images with the photos to eventually create a layered, 3D model of the new bridge as a permanent record that officials can use for reference decades later.

The research team hopes that a historical record of construction can be used over the years as normal wear and tear takes place, allowing engineers to review what has occurred at various points and study whether changes in construction procedures can improve results in the future. 


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Building materials; Colleges and Universities; concrete; Construction; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Energy efficiency; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; Latin America; North America; Polymer concrete; Program/Project Management; Research and development; Transportation; Z-Continents

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