Microscopic studies of ancient concrete could teach us to do as the Romans did

October 20, 2017 ZEISS Microscopy

Many Roman concrete structures still stand strong today. It has long puzzled scientists as to how they remain intact more than 2000 years later, whether fully immersed in seawater or partly immersed in shoreline environments.

And not only have these structures stood the test of time, they have even become stronger. With the help of ZEISS EVO and MERLIN Compact, a group of scientists based in China, Italy and the US have discovered the secret ingredient that could revolutionize the way concrete is manufactured today.

The group had previously found that crystals of aluminous tobermorite, a layered mineral, played a key role in strengthening the concrete as they grew in relict lime particles. But now, thanks to ZEISS EVO and MERLIN Compact, they are able to gain a much deeper understanding of how and why this process occurs. When seawater percolates through a cement matrix, it reacts with volcanic ash and crystals to form Al-tobermorite and a porous mineral called phillipsite.

It takes hundreds of years for these two minerals to strengthen concrete, so now scientists are working towards creating a modern version of Roman cement. This is an exciting development as it could offer an alternative to modern cement production techniques that require high temperature kilns, which has a negative impact on the environment. The cement could also be used for a variety of applications, such as sea walls or ocean facing structures.

SEM-Backscattered (BSE) images of Al-tobermorite and zeolite in pumice clasts, acquired with the ZEISS EVO MA 10. Marie D. Jackson, Sean R. Mulcahy, Heng Chen, Yao Li, Qinfei Li, Piergiulio Cappelletti, Hans-Rudolf Wenk (2017) Phillipsite and Al-tobermorite mineral cements produced through lowtemperature water-rock reactions in Roman marine concrete, American Mineralogist 102 (7) 1435-1450.

Modern technology unlocking the secrets of ancient innovations could lead to exciting times ahead.

Read the scientific article published in American Mineralogist here.

More information on ZEISS EVO for materials

More information on ZEISS MERLIN

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