By Andrew Moore
The tiny rod-like structures have been shown to improve the strength and durability of concrete structures and reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing cement.
If you were to walk through downtown Greenville, you would likely notice several landmarks, including the Liberty Bridge and the old county courthouse.
While these iconic structures are unique in their own right, they share one commonality: They’re made of concrete. The coarse, gray material is the very foundation of modern infrastructure. It’s been used in the construction of everything from buildings and bridges to roads and sidewalks.
But despite all its benefits of strength and durability, there’s a major downside to using concrete.
The production of cement, which when mixed with water forms the binding agent in concrete, accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. These emissions have been on the rise since the industrial revolution and remain the leading cause of global warming.
Over the past decade, though, researchers from across the country have been working together to create a cleaner version of the versatile building material. And now they plan to test the capabilities of their environmentally friendly alternative in Greenville.
The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, a Greenville-based environmental nonprofit, has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State University, and Purdue University to study a concrete mixture infused with cellulosic nanomaterials.
Cellulosic nanomaterials are produced by breaking down wood to its smallest, strongest components through mechanical and chemical processes similar to making paper. These tiny rodlike structures have diameters 20,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair and can be seen only using an electron microscope, yet they are as strong as steel with only one-fifth the weight.
“Researchers are testing these cellulosic nanomaterials in a wide range of applications from substrate for computer chips, they don’t warp under heat like plastics do, to car and airplane bodies, lighter and stronger than steel,” said Dr. Alan Rudie, a chemist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin, in a news release. “Our team expects that concrete will be among the first commercial applications.”