Scientists decode the 'DNA' of cement

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Washington, September 10 (ANI): A team of scientists has finally decoded the basic molecular structure of cement.

The three-dimensional crystalline structure of cement hydrate - the paste that forms and quickly hardens when cement powder is mixed with water - had eluded scientific attempts at decoding till now.

"Cement is so widely used as a building material that nobody is going to replace it anytime soon. But it has a carbon dioxide problem, so a basic understanding of this material could be very timely," said MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Professor Sidney Yip, co-author of the research paper.

"We believe this work is a first step toward a consistent model of the molecular structure of cement hydrate, and we hope the scientific community will work with it," said Yip, who is in MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE).

Scientists have long believed that at the atomic level, cement hydrate closely resembles the rare mineral tobermorite, which has an ordered geometry consisting of layers of infinitely long chains of three-armed silica molecules interspersed with neat layers of calcium oxide.

But, the MIT team found that the calcium-silica-hydrate in cement isn't really a crystal.

It's a hybrid that shares some characteristics with crystalline structures and some with the amorphous structure of frozen liquids, such as glass or ice.

At the atomic scale, tobermorite and other minerals resemble the regular, layered geometric patterns of kilim rugs, with horizontal layers of triangles interspersed with layers of colored stripes.

But a two-dimensional look at a unit of cement hydrate would show layers of triangles (the silica tetrahedra) with every third, sixth or ninth triangle turned up or down along the horizontal axis, reaching into the layer of calcium oxide above or below.

It is in these messy areas, where breaks in the silica tetrahedra create small voids in the corresponding layers of calcium oxide, that water molecules attach, giving cement its robust quality.

Those erstwhile "flaws" in the otherwise regular geometric structure provide some give to the building material at the atomic scale that transfers up to the macro scale.

When under stress, the cement hydrate has the flexibility to stretch or compress just a little, rather than snapping.

According to Franz-Josef Ulm, the Macomber Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), a co-author of the paper, "We've known for several years that at the nano scale, cement hydrates pack together tightly like oranges in a grocer's pyramid. Now, we've finally been able to look inside the orange to find its fundamental signature. I call it the DNA of concrete." (ANI)

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