Concrete is a seemingly ordinary but indispensable material. Its appearance changed how humans build and became the cornerstone of modern architecture. Recently, American scientists have developed the next generation of concrete that can conduct electricity and be embedded with smart devices. In addition to being stronger and more environmentally friendly, metamaterial concrete has more "special" advantages for developing smart civil infrastructure systems.
Concrete dates back to the Roman Empire and remains the most widely used material in the construction industry. Engineers at the University of Pittsburgh have brought concrete into the 21st century by reimagining its design.
Amir Alavin, anassistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said: "Modern society has used concrete, which the ancient Romans invented, in construction for hundreds of years. The extensive use of concrete in our infrastructure projects requires the development of a new generation of concrete materials. Such materials are more economical, environmentally sustainable, and offer advanced functionality. Introducing a metamaterial paradigm to develop building materials can achieve these goals.
The team has previously developed new materials, self-aware metamaterials, which are both sensing media and nanogenerators, which are expected to change the application of multifunctional materials, and the team is now applying the metamaterials to concrete. This research introduces the use of metamaterials in making concrete, allowing materials to be specifically designed for their purpose. Features such as brittleness, adaptability, and formability can be fine-tuned throughout the material's production procedure, permitting builders to utilize less material without compromising strength or longevity.
"This task demonstrates the initial composite metamaterial concrete with ultra-compressibility and energy harvesting capabilities. This lightweight, mechanically tunable concrete system can blaze a trail for using concrete in many applications, such as in airports. Shock-absorbing engineered materials to help slow down an out-of-control airplane or quake base isolation systems." In addition, the product can generate electrical power, and while it does not create sufficient electrical energy to power the grid, the signal it creates suffices to power roadside sensors. The electric signals that metamaterial concrete generates under mechanical excitation can likewise be used to keep track of damage within concrete structures or earthquakes while reducing the effect on buildings.
The metamaterial comprises a reinforced auxiliary polymer lattice in a conductive cement matrix. The researchers formed the electrodes from conductive cement reinforced with graphite powder, and a mechanical trigger produced contact electrification between the layers. The composite structure between each layer causes contact electrification whenever triggered mechanically. The team also used graphite powder to enhance the conductive adhesive and serve as an electrode. Speculative research shows that the material can be pressed by up to 15% under cyclic loading, producing 330 μW power.
It won't generate enough power to send to the grid. Still, it could be used to monitor damage inside concrete structures, such as shock-absorbing engineered materials at airports to help slow down out-of-control aircraft or earthquake-based isolation systems.
The team also pointed out that this kind of concrete smart structure can even power chips in the road. In the future, self-driving vehicles can continue to drive when the GPS signal is too weak, and the lidar is not running.
Physically, the metamaterial can be fine-tuned to suit construction needs, switching its flexibility, shape, and brittleness, and in tests, it can be compressed up to 15% while maintaining its structural integrity.
Allawi said this project proposes the first composite metamaterial concrete with super compressibility and energy harvesting capabilities. "This lightweight and mechanically tunable concrete system could open the door to using concrete in various applications." Gates, such as airports, shock-absorbing engineered materials to help slow down runaway aircraft or earthquake base isolation systems."
The team, which includes engineers from New Mexico State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems, and Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, believes the versatile concrete material could become a widely used component in infrastructure. Because it is "scalable, cost-effective, and can self-sustain its operations through green harvesting of energy."
This metamaterial concrete will also be used on Pennsylvania roads through the IRISE Alliance of the University of Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). This smart engineering product could even power chips embedded in highways to assist self-driving cars.
However, the research reports the need for large-scale testing and further research into how energy-harvesting nanogenerator-integrated materials can be insulated from environmental stressors such as humidity, humid weather, and temperature changes.
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