Published on Jun 23, 2022
Nanotechnology is one of the most active research areas that include a number of disciplines including civil engineering and construction materials. Nanotechnology is the understanding, control, and restructuring of matter on the order of nanometers (i.e., less than 100 nm) to create materials with fundamentally new properties and functions. Nanotechnology encompasses two main approaches:
(i) the ‘‘topdown” approach, in which larger structures are reduced in size to the nanoscale while maintaining their original properties or deconstructed from larger structures into their smaller, composite parts and (ii) the ‘‘bottom-up” approach, also called ‘‘molecular nanotechnology” or ‘‘molecular manufacturing,” in which materials are engineered from atoms or molecular components through a process of assembly or self-assembly.
Traditionally nanotechnology has been concerned with developments in the fields of microelectronics, medicine and material sciences. However the potential for applications of many developments in the nanotechnology field in the area of construction engineering is growing. The evolution of technology and instrumentation as well as its related scientific areas such as physics and chemistry is making the nanotechnology aggressive and evolutional. There are many potential areas where nanotechnology can benefit construction engineering like its applications in concrete, structural composites, coating materials and in nano-sensors, etc. Nanotechnology products can be used for design and construction processes in many areas.
The nanotechnology generated products have unique characteristics, and can significantly fix current construction problems, and may change the requirement and organisation of construction process. The recent developments in the study and manipulation of materials and processes at the nanoscale offer the great prospect of producing new macro materials, properties and products. But till date, nanotechnology applications and advances in the construction and building materials fields have been uneven. Exploitation of nanotechnology in concrete on a commercial scale remains limited with few results successfully converted into marketable products. The main advances have been in the nanoscience of cementitious materials with an increase in the knowledge and understanding of basic phenomena in cement at the nanoscale.
Concrete, the most ubiquitous material in the world, is a nanostructured, multi-phase, composite material that ages over time. It is composed of an amorphous phase, nanometer to micrometer size crystals, and bound water. The amorphous phase, calcium–silicate–hydrate (C–S–H) is the ‘‘glue” that holds concrete together and is itself a nanomaterial. Viewed from the bottom-up, concrete at the nanoscale is a composite of molecular assemblages, surfaces (aggregates, fibres), and chemical bonds that interact through local chemical reactions, intermolecular forces, and intraphase diffusion. Properties characterizing this scale are molecular structure; surface functional groups; and bond length, strength (energy), and density.
The structure of the amorphous and crystalline phases and of the interphase boundaries originates from this scale. The properties and processes at the nanoscale define the interactions that occur between particles and phases at the microscale and the effects of working loads and the surrounding environment at the macroscale. Processes occurring at the nanoscale ultimately affect the engineering properties and performance of the bulk material. There are two main avenues of applications of nanotechnology in concrete research;the nanoscience and nano-engineering. Nanoscience deals with the measurement and characterization of the nano and microscale structure of cement-based materials to better understand how this structure affects macroscale properties and performance through the use of advanced characterization techniques and atomistic or molecular level modeling.
Nano-engineering encompasses the techniques of manipulation of the structure at the nanometer scale to develop a new generation of tailored, multifunctional, cementitious composites with superior mechanical performance and durability potentially having a range of novel properties such as: low electrical resistivity, self-sensing capabilities, self-cleaning, self-healing, high ductility, and self-control of cracks. Concrete can be nano-engineered by the incorporation of nanosized building blocks or objects (e.g., nanoparticles and nanotubes) to control material behavior and add novel properties, or by the grafting of molecules onto cement particles, cement phases, aggregates, and additives (including nanosized additives) to provide surface functionality, which can be adjusted to promote specific interfacial interactions.
At the basic science level, much analysis of concrete is being done at the nano-level in order to understand its structure using the various techniques developed for study at that scale such as Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Focused Ion Beam (FIB). This has come about as a side benefit of the development of these instruments to study the nanoscale in general, but the understanding of the structure and behaviour of concrete at the fundamental level is an important and very appropriate use of nanotechnology.
One of the fundamental aspects of nanotechnology is its interdisciplinary nature and there has already been cross over research between the mechanical modeling of bones for medical engineering to that of concrete which has enabled the study of chloride diffusion in concrete (which causes corrosion of reinforcement). Concrete is, after all, a macro-material strongly influenced by its nano-properties and understanding it at this new level is yielding new avenues for improvement of strength, durability and monitoring.
Addition of nanosized and nano-structured materials
Nanosized particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, providing the potential for tremendous chemical reactivity. Much of the work to date with nanoparticles has been with nano-silica (nano-SiO2) and nano-titanium oxide (nano-TiO2) .There are a few studies on incorporating nano-iron (nano-Fe2O3), nano-alumina (nano-Al2O3) , and nanoclay particles . Additionally, a limited number of investigations are dealing with the manufacture of nanosized cement particles and the development of nanobinders . Nanoparticles can act as nuclei for cement phases, further promoting cement hydration due to their high reactivity, as nanoreinforcement, and as filler, densifying the microstructure and the ITZ, thereby, leading to a reduced porosity. The most significant issue for all nanoparticles is that of effective dispersion. Though it is particularly significant at high loadings, even low loadings experience problems with self-aggregation, which reduces the benefits of their small size and creates un-reacted pockets leading to a potential for concentration of stresses in the material.
Nano-SiO2 has been found to improve concrete workability and strength, to increase resistance to water penetration, and to help control the leaching of calcium, which is closely associated with various types of concrete degradation. Nano-SiO2, additionally, was shown to accelerate the hydration reactions of both C3S and an ash–cement mortar as a result of the large and highly reactive surface of the nanoparticles. Nano-SiO2 was found to be more efficient in enhancing strength than silica fume. Addition of 10% nano-SiO2 with dispersing agents was observed to increase the compressive strength of cement mortars at 28 days by as much as 26%, compared to only a 10% increase with the addition of 15% silica fume.
Even the addition of small amounts (0.25%) of nano-SiO2 was observed to increase the strength, improving the 28 day compressive strength by 10% and flexural strength by 25%. It was noted that the results obtained depended on the production route and conditions of synthesis of the nano-SiO2 (e.g., molar ratios of the reagents, type of reaction media, and duration
of the reaction for the sol–gel method) and that dispersion of the nano-SiO2 in the paste plays an important role. Nano-SiO2 not only behaved as a filler to improve the microstructure but also as an activator to promote pozzolanic reactions .
Nano-TiO2 has proven very effective for the self-cleaning of concrete and provides the additional benefit of helping to clean the environment. Nano-TiO2 containing concrete acts by triggering a photocatalytic degradation of pollutants, such as NOx, carbon monoxide, VOCs, chlorophenols, and aldehydes from vehicle and industrial emissions. ‘‘Self-cleaning” and ‘‘de-polluting” concrete products are already being produced by several companies for use in the facades of buildings (e.g., the Jubilee Church in Rome, Italy). In addition to imparting self-cleaning properties, a few studies have shown that nano-TiO2 can accelerate the early-age hydration of Portland cement, improve compressive and flexural strengths, and enhance the abrasion resistance of concrete. However, it was also found that aging due to carbonation may result in loss in catalytic efficiency
Use of Nanoreinforcements
Carbon nanotubes/nanofibers (CNTs/CNFs) are potential candidates for use as nanoreinforcements in cement-based materials. CNTs/CNFs exhibit extraordinary strength with moduli of elasticity on the order of TPa and tensile strength in the range of GPa, and they have unique electronic and chemical properties.
CNTs/CNFs, thus, appear to be among the most promising nanomaterials for enhancing the mechanical properties of cement-based materials and their resistance to crack propagation while providing such novel properties as electromagnetic field shielding and self-sensing. Single-wall CNTs (SWCNTs), multi-wall CNTs (MWCNTs), and CNFs are highly structured graphene ring-based materials with very large aspect ratios (of 1000 or more) and very high surface areas. SWCNTs are single graphene cylinders and MWCNTs are multiple, concentric graphene cylinders coaxially arranged around a hollow core.
Unlike CNTs, CNFs present numerous exposed edge planes along the surface that constitute potential sites for advantageous chemical or physical interaction. Compared to CNTs, vapor grown CNFs have a lower production cost (about 100 times lower than SWCNTs ) and are suitable for mass production. While CNTs/CNFs have been extensively studied in polymeric composites, their use in cement has, to date, remained limited. Most research efforts have focused on CNTs compared to CNFs and have been performed on cement pastes. One of the main challenges is the proper dispersion of CNTs/CNFs into cement paste, partly due to their high hydrophobicity and partly due to their strong self-attraction. Incorporating the unique mechanical properties of CNTs/CNFs in cement composites has proven to be rather complex and to date mixed results have been obtained. A number of methods have been investigated to improve dispersion and to activate the graphite surface in order to enhance the interfacial interaction through surface functionalization and coating, optimal physical blending, and the use of surfactant and other admixtures.
CNTs can affect early-age hydration and that a strong bond is possible between the cement paste and the CNTs. Their dispersion process consisted of sonication in isopropanol followed by cement addition, evaporation, and grinding, which produced cement particles coated with CNTs. Both MWCNTs and SWCNTs, when added to cement paste as a pre-mix with gum Arabic (a water-soluble gum used as a dispersing agent), were shown to increase the Young’s modulus and hardness. But the mechanical properties got worsen when no dispersing agent was added. When MWCNTs was introduced as a water suspension with added surfactant admixtures , did not increase the compressive and bending strengths, though good dispersion was obtained.
They also found the bonding between the MWCNTs and the cement matrix to be very weak, where, under tension, the MWCNTs were easily pulled off the matrix. But the combination of MWCNTs with polyacrylic-acid polymers found improved dispersion, good workability, and increased compressive strength. In mortar, a study using untreated CNTs and CNTs pre-treated with sulfuric and nitric acid found an increase in compressive strength up to 19% and in flexural strength up to 25% and that CNTs can decrease the electrical resistivity and improve the pressure sensitive properties of mortars.
Oxidized multi-walled nanotubes (MWNT’s) show the best improvements both in compressive strength (+ 25 N/mm²) and flexural strength (+ 8 N/mm²) compared to the reference samples without the reinforcement. It is theorized the high defect concentration on the surface of the oxidized MWNTs could lead to a better linkage between the nanostructures and the binder thus improving the mechanical properties of the composite rather like the deformations on reinforcing bars. However, two problems with the addition of carbon nanotubes to any material are the clumping together of the tubes and the lack of cohesion between them and the matrix bulk material. Due to the interaction between the graphene sheets of nanotubes, the tubes tend to aggregate to form bundles or “ropes” and the ropes can even be entangled with one another. To achieve uniform dispersion they must be disentangled.
Further more due to their graphite nature, there is not a proper adhesion between the nanotube and the matrix causing what it is called sliding. An alternative approach was recently developed by Cwirzen et al. for a hybridized Portland cement that incorporated CNTs and CNFs grown in situ on the cement particles using a modified chemical vapor deposition method. The resulting hybrid cement, called Carbon Hedge Hog (CHH), allows for a composite containing up to 20% CNTs/CNFs. No significant change in the flexural strength was found; however, the electrical conductivity was increased by one order of magnitude. The cost of adding CNT’s to concrete may be prohibitive at the moment, but work is being done to reduce their price and at such time the benefits offered by their addition to cementitious materials may become more palatable.
Applications in Steel Structures, joint and welds
Fatigue is a significant issue that can lead to the structural failure of steel subject to cyclic loading, such as in bridges or towers. This can happen at stresses significantly lower than the yield stress of the material and lead to a significant shortening of useful life of the structure. The current design philosophy entails one or more of three limiting measures: a design based on a dramatic reduction in the allowable stress, a shortened allowable service life or the need for a regular inspection regime. This has a significant impact on the life-cycle costs of structures and limits the effective use of resources and it is therefore a sustainability as well as a safety issue. Stress risers are responsible for initiating cracks from which fatigue failure results and research has shown that the addition of copper nano particles reduces the surface unevenness of steel which then limits the number of stress risers and hence fatigue cracking. Advancements in this technology would lead to increased safety, less need for monitoring and more efficient materials use in construction prone to fatigue issues.
Current research into the refinement of the cementite phase of steel to a nano-size has produced stronger cables. High strength steel cables, as well as being used in car tyres, are used in bridge construction and in pre-cast concrete tensioning and a stronger cable material would reduce the costs and period of construction, especially in suspension bridges as the cables are run from end to end of the span. Sustainability is also enhanced by the use of higher cable strength as this leads to a more efficient use of materials
High rise structures require high strength joints and this in turn leads to the need for high strength bolts. The capacity of high strength bolts is realized generally through quenching and tempering. When the tensile strength of tempered steel exceeds 1,200 MPa even a very small amount of hydrogen embrittles the grain boundaries and the steel material may fail during use. This phenomenon, which is known as delayed fracture, has hindered the further strengthening of steel bolts and their highest strength has long been limited to somewhere around 1,000 to 1,200 MPa. Research work on vanadium and molybdenum nano particles has shown that they improve the delayed fracture problems associated with high strength bolts. This is the result of the nano particles reducing the effects of hydrogen embrittlement and improving the steel micro-structure through reducing the effects of the inter-granular cementite phase.
Welds and the Heat Affected Zone (HAZ) adjacent to welds can be brittle and fail without warning when subjected to sudden dynamic loading, and weld toughness is a significant issue especially in zones of high seismic activity. The current design philosophies include selective weakening of structures to produce controlled deformation away from brittle welded joints or the deliberate over-sizing of structures to keep all stresses low. Research has shown that the addition of nanoparticles of magnesium and calcium makes the HAZ grains finer (about 1/5th the size of conventional material) in plate steel and this leads to an increase in weld toughness. This is a sustainable as well as a safety issue, as an increase in toughness at welded joints would result in a smaller resource requirement because less material is required in order to keep stresses within allowable limits.
Although carbon nano tubes (CNT’s) have tremendous properties of strength and stiffness, they have found little application as an addition to steel as their inherent slipperiness (due to their graphitic nature) makes them difficult to bind to the bulk material and they pull out easily, rendering them ineffective. In addition, the high temperatures involved in steel manufacture and the effects of this on CNT’s presents a challenge for their effective use as a composite component.
Applications in Wood
Wood is also composed of nanotubes or “nanofibrils”; namely, lignocellulosic (woody tissue) elements which are twice as strong as steel. Harvesting these nanofibrils would lead to a new paradigm in sustainable construction as both the production and use would be part of a renewable cycle. Lignocellulosic surfaces at the nanoscale could open new opportunities for such things as self-sterilizing surfaces, internal self-repair, and electronic lignocellulosic devices. Due to its natural origins, wood is leading the way in cross-disciplinary research and modelling techniques.
Firstly, BASF have developed a highly water repellent coating based on the actions of the lotus leaf as a result of the incorporation of silica and alumina nano particles and hydrophobic polymers. And, secondly, mechanical studies of bones have been adapted to model wood, for instance in the drying process. In the broader sense, nanotechnology represents a major opportunity for the wood industry to develop new products, substantially reduce processing costs, and open new markets for bio-based materials
Nanotechnology offers the possibility of great advances whereas conventional approaches, at best, offer only incremental improvements in the field of construction engineering. Nanotechnology is not exactly a new technology, rather it is an extrapolation of current ones to a new scale and at that scale the conventional tools and rules no longer apply. Nanotechnology is therefore the opposite of the traditional top-down process of construction, or indeed any production technique, and it offers the ability to work from the “bottom” of materials design to the “top” of the built environment. However, many of the advances offered by nanotechnology, be they for economic or technical reasons, are years away from practical application, especially in the conservative and fragmented construction business.
The main limitation is the high costs of nanotechnology, also concerns with the environmental and health effects. The waves of change being propagated by progress at the nanoscale will therefore be felt far and wide and nowhere more so than in construction due its large economic and social presence. There are three main issues that are preventing the widespread use of the nanotechnology (1) Lack of vision to identify those aspects that could be changed through its use, (2) Lack of skilled personnel and (3) Level of investment.
The potential of nanotechnology to improve the performance of concrete and to lead to the development of novel, sustainable, advanced cement based composites with unique mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties is promising and many new opportunities are expected to arise in the coming years. However, current challenges need to be solved before the full potential of nanotechnology can be realized in concrete applications, including proper dispersion; compatibility of the nanomaterials in cement; processing, manufacturing, safety, and handling issues; scale-up; and cost.
[I] Tina Lai "Structural behavior of Nano Concrete and their applications to lightweight bridge decks" ,M.Tech thesis, MIT, 2009.
 Sergiu Cal in, Ciprian Asavoaie and N. Florea, "Issues for achieving an experimental model" Bul. Inst. Polit. lai, t. LV (LIX), f. 3, 2009.
 Martina Schnellenbach-Held and Karsten Pfeffer,"Punching behavior of biaxial hollow slabs" Cement and Concrete Composites, Volume 24, Issue 6, Pages 551-556, December 2002.
 Sergiu Calin, Roxana Glntu and Gabriela Dascalu, "Summary of tests and studies done abroad on the Nano Concrete system", The Buletinul Institutului Politehnic din lai, t. LV (LIX), f. 3, 2009.
 Sergiu Calin and Ciprian Asavoaie, "Method for Nano Concrete concrete slab with gaps", The Buletinul Institutului Politehnic din lai, LV (LTX), f. 2,2009.
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