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Re-Imagining Cement: A Bio-Inspired Approach

Concrete is the most common construction materials in the world. When mixed, the water and cement undergo a chemical reaction – called hydration – that ‘glues’ the sand and stone together, yielding a semiliquid mixture that hardens in 24 hours but requires more than 28 days of ‘curing’ to reach its maximum strength.

During hydration, the constituents of cement react with water to form calcium-silicate hydrates (CSHs), which play a fundamental role in the properties of cement-based materials. “The nanoscale composition and nanostructural characteristics of the CSHs are key factors in determining the sustainability of concrete,” explains Ali Ghahremaninezhad, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “Therefore, this opens a new avenue to improve the design of cement-based materials by manipulating their nanostructures to achieve desired properties at the macroscale.”

Specifically, Ghahremaninezhad and his team are interested in manipulating CSHs’ nanostructure by incorporating biological molecules to the cement itself, mimicking the hierarchical microstructure and superior mechanical and functional properties of nature’s biological materials.

Ghahremaninezhad is working with Marc Knecht, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, to explore a bio-inspired approach based on programmable peptides as a new paradigm in controlling cement’s microstructure to achieve desired mechanical performance in infrastructure materials. The collaborative research project, one of seven awards funded by the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences, focuses on the topics related to the Frost Institute of Chemistry and Molecular Science (FICMS), the first of the Frost Institutes for Science and Engineering that will be housed in the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Science and Engineering Building.

Peptides are compounds consisting of amino acids linked in a chain. They have the ability to direct the production of even the most intricate biological materials, controlling both their growth and structure.

“The idea behind the project is to use peptides with a predetermined affinity to CSHs to manipulate the growth, microstructure, and interfacial strength of CSHs, thereby controlling the structure and performance of the cementitious materials,” explains Ghahremaninezhad. “This will be achieved through controlled binding interactions between CSHs and peptides, which will in turn control and modify the inorganic material growth.”

The research project benefits from the strong collaboration between a chemist (Knecht) and a materials scientist (Ghahremaninezhad) to manipulate the materials at the molecular scale, as well as at the global structure scale.

“The fundamental knowledge obtained from this research will set the stage for a new design paradigm to engineer innovative infrastructure materials with enhanced durability and sustainability performance,” says Ghahremaninezhad.

The collaborative research project is officially titled, “A bio-inspired approach to tailor the structure and mechanical properties of calcium-silicate-hydrate in infrastructure materials.”

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