Scientists at MIT have used Raman microspectroscopy to examine the chemical reactions that occur when water and ordinary portland cement mix in a real-world setting. “[T]his allowed us to observe all the changes almost continuously and improved the resolution of our image in space and time,” said graduate student Hyun-Chae “Chad” Loh.



The concrete world that surrounds us owes its shape and durability to chemical reactions that start when ordinary Portland cement is mixed with water. Now, MIT scientists have demonstrated a way to watch these reactions under real-world conditions, an advance that may help researchers find ways to make concrete more sustainable.

The study is a “Brothers Lumière moment for concrete science,” says co-author Franz-Josef Ulm, professor of civil and environmental engineering and faculty director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, referring to the two brothers who ushered in the era of projected films. Likewise, Ulm says, the MIT team has provided a glimpse of early-stage cement hydration that is like cinema in Technicolor compared to the black and white photos of earlier research.

Cement in concrete contributes about 8 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, rivaling the emissions produced by most individual countries. With a better understanding of cement chemistry, scientists could potentially “alter production or change ingredients so that concrete has less of an impact on emissions, or add ingredients that are capable of actively absorbing carbon dioxide,” says Admir Masic, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Next-generation technologies like 3D printing of concrete could also benefit from the study’s new imaging technique, which shows how cement hydrates and hardens in place, says Masic Lab graduate student Hyun-Chae Chad Loh, who also works as a materials scientist with the company Black Buffalo 3D Corporation.