As the most used material in the construction industry, concrete is well overdue for an update. In a new study, a team of engineers reimagined the design of concrete by making the material self-sensing and energy-generating.  

The paper, which was published in the Advanced Materials journal earlier this year, introduces a new concept of concrete for the development of smart civil infrastructure systems, such as pavements, buildings, and roads. As explained by Amir Alavi, the corresponding author of the study, the substantial use of concrete in infrastructure projects suggests the need to develop “…a new generation of concrete materials that are more economical and environmentally sustainable, yet offer advanced functionalities.” 

He believes that these goals can be achieved by introducing the use of metamaterials in the creation of concrete. Metamaterials are artificially engineered materials that exhibit properties that are not found in nature. By using metamaterials, engineers can create structures that are mechanically tunable. In this case, the concrete’s brittleness, flexibility, and shapeability can all be specifically designed for each project and application.

Furthermore, the material can generate electricity. Even though it cannot produce enough electricity to send power to the electrical grid, the self-generated electrical signal can power roadside sensors or monitor damage inside concrete structures. Eventually, these smart structures could even power chips embedded inside roads to help autonomous cars navigate on highways. The research team is partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to develop this metamaterial concrete for use on Pennsylvania roads.

The metamaterial concrete under strain in an experiment
The metamaterial concrete under strain in an experiment; Photo Courtesy of Barri, et. al.

In the eyes of Alavi, this concrete is just the beginning of integrating metamaterials into smart civil infrastructure. As he said to the Tomorrow’s World Today team, “I see a future, probably within ten years or so, where all of our civil infrastructure systems are made of metamaterials. And that’s not a pie in the sky, that’s something that will happen soon—I’m sure about that.”

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