June 28, 2007

Embracing a gray world

The following article was intended originally for publication in MTSU Sidelines as part of an independent study in technology journalism. While the article never ran, I did enjoy writing it. I decided to post it on here rather than let it collect dust. Enjoy.

Concrete has a bad reputation.

The abundant material associated with sidewalks, construction and highways has become the scourge of outdoorsmen who are sick of looking at dull gray everywhere they go. Most environmentalists don’t think much of it either when rallying the world’s corporations to “Go Green.”

However, gray may be a more appropriate color.

The first to embrace the gray is Italy, the same region in which concrete was created during the days of ancient Rome. Several Italian cities are implementing a new project aimed at making their smog-polluted air more environmentally friendly.

Concrete company Italcementi produces a particular mix that can absorb harmful greenhouse gases in the air during a period of daylight. Milan and Rome have started coating buildings and sidewalks with this new mix and other countries are rumored to follow soon, according to the company.

“In the past, it has not had the best reputation, but we’re changing that,” says MTSU Concrete Industry Management Director Heather Brown. “We realize that to go forward we have to build things out of environmentally friendly material.”

Brown says the absorption of harmful greenhouse gasses is probably similar to the process used in pervious concrete, which “drinks” and filters run off water—removing the heavy metals and hydrocarbons from cars.

Buildings made from concrete also serve an additional Green purpose. They are better insulated than structures made of steel and wood, meaning they cut down on energy usage.

A civil engineer at heart, Brown says the perception of concrete is usually that it’s a dirty, rough n’ tough material only used in construction. But, it can actually be used for a variety of applications by altering the specific density, adding certain chemicals and using the right materials.

“It takes some pretty ingenuous people to think about the reactions and the materials involved,” she explains, adding that concrete merits a degree of study because it’s an “intelligent material.”

“One of the things we try to do in the CIM program is dispel that perception and teach people its full potential,” Brown explains.

With more than 6 billion cubic meters of concrete being produced every year, MTSU developed its own concrete management curriculum, because the industrial workforce needs future employees who understand the technological advancement of this ashen-colored commodity.

“There’s a whole chemical side to concrete, which a lot of people don’t think about,” Brown says while gesturing her hand to the shelf of books just outside her office. “If you don’t get that right, then its not going to do what you want it to do.”

So other than the typical uses of building, what else could concrete possibly do? According to Brown, the right mix of concrete can be used to improve the life of a structure such as a bridge for up to a hundred years. A house built from the right concrete will make it tornado proof and able to withstand up to 250 mile per hour winds. It can make apartment complexes near an airport sound proof, while adding fiber to it will improve the impact ability—a popular use because of the homeland security initiative.

“A fiber mix would absorb a great deal of the impact of a structure that was hit by a missile,” Brown explains.

And those are just some of the more believable uses for concrete.

Imagine being able to watch television from a concrete screen. Danish company Innovative Labs has sacrificed picture perfect resolution quality to create a concrete screen made from a transparent mix embedded with optical fibers.

Transparent concrete can also satisfy artistic structural projects, which have a less than traditional shape. Because this gloomy substance is poured before being hardened, a Styrofoam model can be used to manipulate its shape by filling the core, although this practice can be duplicated with any type of concrete mix.

“You couldn’t [easily] do that with wood or steel,” Brown says. “Aesthetically, people are finding that it’s a better material to work with.”

Still, most of these innovative uses for concrete happen internationally since that’s where the research is.

Concrete was more of a financial commodity when it gained popularity in America despite its innovative uses at the turn of the century, according to Rebecca Conard, environmental historian and author of “Places of Quite Beauty: Parks, Preserves, and Environmentalism.”

“I guess I’m not surprised that there are new uses for concrete,” she says. “It’s actually an amazing material.”

She suggests one reason why American concrete companies are so slow to develop new uses for their primary product could be because research isn’t a guaranteed, cost effective strategy for most businesses.

“People follow the easy money first,” Conard speculates.

If what Conard suspects is true, then corporations have been Going Green—dollar bill green to be exact—for a long time. However, a drab, dusky color change may be on the way as people realize several diverse uses for concrete.

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