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Smart concrete makes for a smoother commute

Novel smart concrete could offer smoother roads, more durable cities

Potholes may be a standard part of the early spring morning commute, but they come at a high cost. U.S. drivers spent over $26.5 billion on potholes in 2021, between individual vehicle repairs and larger-scale road work.

But research from Northwestern University uses nanomaterials in ordinary cement to try and change that.

Pothole formation is at its worse when temperatures are changing. This, says Northwestern concrete expert Ange-Therese Akono, is caused by the freeze-thaw cycle. Moisture seeps into pavement and expands when the water freezes, then contracts when it thaws, causing the cracks to broaden and form potholes that get larger as traffic rumbles above.

Akono is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering, who develops smart concrete. Her concrete is water- and fracture-resistant, making it more durable and highly functional.

“Our nanoreinforced concrete is 30% stronger than the current concrete commonly used today,” Akono said. “So, what we’re doing is forming a novel type of cement that would be stronger with higher performance.

“Another aspect is making concrete more resistant to climate change, whether it’s through increasing the resistance to water penetration, increasing the mechanical properties, ability to absorb mechanical energy or resist cracking.

“We also want to reduce the carbon footprint. When you have a higher performance road, this translates to less greenhouse gas emissions for the cars and the motorists who are using the road.”

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