Self-healing concrete could save £40bn in maintenance costs

A team of researchers from the Universities of Bath, Cambridge and Cardiff are carrying out the first trials of self-healing concrete in the UK. If the trial is successful it could lead to huge savings on maintenance of the UK’s network of roads, towns, and cities. It is estimated that around £40billion is spent each year in the UK on structural maintenance, and the majority of these structures are made of concrete.

Oliver Teall, civil engineer at Costain – an industrial partner on the project, said: “We are supporting this innovative research to unlock the many potential benefits of self-healing concrete for use within infrastructure. From this trial we should gain an insight into the feasibility of constructing a full-scale structure using these techniques and their early-stage effects on structural properties.”

Three different technologies are being tested as part of the Materials For Life (M4L) project, and it's hoped that they might eventually be combined into one super-tough mixture. The materials involved would be embedded into the concrete as it was made, and they'd be able to detect and fix problems autonomously.

Six concrete walls are going to be cracked and broken as necessary before the self-healing technologies are left to do their work.

The first technique involves shape-memory polymers that are able to transform their shape when heated to return to a preconfigured layout. The second technique uses a network of thin tunnels in the concrete to pump through both organic and inorganic healing agents. The third method involves tiny capsules of bacteria and healing agents embedded inside the concrete: these capsules produce calcium carbonate, which should theoretically be able to close up cracks.

Professor Bob Lark, principal investigator on the project from Cardiff University’s School of Engineering, said:"Our vision is to create sustainable and resilient systems that continually monitor, regulate, adapt and repair themselves without the need for human intervention.

“These self-healing materials and intelligent structures will significantly enhance durability, improve safety and reduce the extremely high maintenance costs that are spent each year. This major trial will provide us with important insights to help transfer the technologies from the lab into real-world settings," Prof Lark added.

Tom Austin-Morgan

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