There are many types of concrete available, created by varying the proportions of the main ingredients below. In this way or by substitution for the cementitious and aggregate phases, the finished product can be tailored to its application with varying strength, density, or chemical and thermal resistance properties.
Aggregate consists of large chunks of material in a concrete mix, generally a coarse gravel or crushed rocks such as limestone, or granite, along with finer materials such as sand.
Commonly Portland cement, and other cementitious materials such as fly ash and slag cement, serves as a binder for the aggregate. Water is then mixed with this dry composite, which enables it to be shaped (typically poured) and then solidified and hardened into rock-hard strength through a chemical process called hydration. The water reacts with the cement, which bonds the other components together, creating a robust stone-like material.
Chemical admixtures are added to achieve varied properties. These ingredients may speed or slow down the rate at which the concrete hardens, and impart many other useful properties.
Reinforcements are often added to concrete. Concrete can be formulated with high compressive strength, but always has lower tensile strength. For this reason it is usually reinforced with materials that are strong in tension (often steel). Concrete can be damaged by many processes, such as the freezing of trapped water.
Mineral admixtures are becoming more popular in recent decades. The use of recycled materials as concrete ingredients has been gaining popularity because of increasingly stringent environmental legislation, and the discovery that such materials often have complimentary and valuable properties. The most conspicuous of these are fly ash, a by-product of coal-fired power plants, and silica fume, a byproduct of industrial electric arc furnaces. The use of these materials in concrete reduces the amount of resources required as the ash and fume acts as a cement replacement. This displaces some cement production, an energetically expensive and environmentally problematic process, while reducing the amount of industrial waste that must be disposed of. The mix design depends on the type of structure being built, how the concrete will be mixed and delivered and how it will be placed to form this structure.
Portland cement is the most common type of cement in general usage. It is a basic ingredient of concrete, mortar and plaster.
**DID YOU KNOW...? English masonry worker Joseph Aspdin patented Portland cement in 1824.
It was named because of the similarity of its color to Portland limestone, quarried from the English Isle of Portland and used extensively in London architecture. It consists of a mixture of oxides of calcium, silicon and aluminium. Portland cement and similar materials are made by heating limestone (a source of calcium) with clay and grinding this product (called clinker) with a source of sulfate (most commonly gypsum).
In modern cement kilns many advanced features are used to lower the fuel consumption per ton of clinker produced. Cement kilns are extremely large, complex, and inherently dirty industrial installations, and have many undesirable emissions. Of the various ingredients used in concrete the cement is the most energetically expensive. Even complex and efficient kilns require 3.3 to 3.6 gigajoules of energy to produce a ton of clinker and then grind it into cement. Many kilns can be fueled with difficult to dispose of wastes, the most common being used tires. The extremely high temperatures and long periods of time at those temperatures allow cement kilns too efficiently and completely burn even difficult to use fuels.
In recent years, alternatives have been developed to help replace cement. Products such as PLC (Portland Limestone Cement), which incorporate limestone into the mix, are being tested. This is due to cement production being one of the largest producers of global greenhouse gas emissions (about 5 to 10%).
Combining water with a cementitious material forms a cement paste by the process of hydration. The cement paste glues the aggregate together, fills voids within it, and makes it flow more freely.
Lower water to concrete ratio will yield a stronger, more durable concrete; while more water will give a freer-flowing concrete with a higher slump. Impure water used to make concrete can cause problems when setting or in causing premature failure of the structure.
Hydration involves many different reactions, often occurring at the same time. As the reactions proceed, the products of the cement hydration process gradually bond together the individual sand and gravel particles and other components of the concrete, to form a solid mass.
Cement chemist notation: C3S + H → C-S-H + CH
Standard notation: Ca3SiO5 + H2O → (CaO)·(SiO2)·(H2O)(gel) + Ca(OH)2
Balanced: 2Ca3SiO5 + 7H2O → 3(CaO)·2(SiO2)·4(H2O)(gel) + 3Ca(OH)2
Fine and coarse aggregates make up the bulk of a concrete mixture. Sand, natural gravel and crushed stone are used mainly for this purpose. Recycled aggregates (from construction, demolition and excavation waste) are increasingly used as partial replacements of natural aggregates, while a number of manufactured aggregates, including air-cooled blast furnace slag and bottom ash are also permitted.
The presence of aggregate greatly increases the robustness of concrete above that of cement, which is a brittle material in its pure state. Thus concrete is a true composite material.
Redistribution of aggregates after compaction often creates inhomogeneity due to the influence of vibration. This can lead to strength gradients.
Decorative stones such as quartzite, small river stones or crushed glass are sometimes added to the surface of concrete for a decorative "exposed aggregate" finish, popular among landscape designers.
In addition to being decorative, exposed aggregate adds robustness to a concrete driveway.
Concrete is strong in compression, as the aggregate efficiently carries the compression load. However, it is weak in tension as the cement holding the aggregate in place can crack, allowing the structure to fail. Reinforced concrete adds either steel reinforcing bars, steel fibers, glass fiber, or plastic fiber to carry tensile loads.
Chemical admixtures are materials in the form of powder or fluids that are added to the concrete to give it certain characteristics not obtainable with plain concrete mixes. In normal use, admixture dosages are less than 5% by mass of cement and are added to the concrete at the time of batching/mixing. The common types of admixtures are as follows.
Accelerators speed up the hydration (hardening) of the concrete. Typical materials used are CaCl2, Ca(NO3)2 and NaNO3. However, use of chlorides may cause corrosion in steel reinforcing and is prohibited in some countries, so that nitrates may be favored.
Retarders slow the hydration of concrete and are used in large or difficult pours where partial setting before the pour is complete is undesirable. Typical polyol retarders are sugar, sucrose, sodium gluconate, glucose, citric acid, and tartaric acid.
Air entrainments add and entrain tiny air bubbles in the concrete, which will reduce damage during freeze-thaw cycles, thereby increasing the concrete's durability. However, entrained air entails a trade off with strength, as each 1% of air may result in 5% decrease in compressive strength.
Plasticizers increase the workability of plastic or "fresh" concrete, allowing it be placed more easily, with less consolidating effort. A typical plasticizer is lignosulfonate. Plasticizers can be used to reduce the water content of a concrete while maintaining workability and are sometimes called water-reducers due to this use. Such treatment improves its strength and durability characteristics.
Super-plasticizers (also called high-range water-reducers) are a class of plasticizers that have fewer deleterious effects and can be used to increase workability more than is practical with traditional plasticizers. Compounds used as super-plasticizers include sulfonated naphthalene formaldehyde condensate, sulfonated melamine formaldehyde condensate, acetone formaldehyde condensate and poly-carboxylate ethers.
Pigments can be used to change the color of concrete, for aesthetics.
Corrosion inhibitors are used to minimize the corrosion of steel and steel bars in concrete.
Bonding agents are used to create a bond between old and new concrete (typically a type of polymer).
Pumping aids improve pumpability, thicken the paste and reduce separation and bleeding.
Mineral admixtures and blended cements
There are inorganic materials that also have pozzolanic or latent hydraulic properties. These very fine-grained materials are added to the concrete mix to improve the properties of concrete (mineral admixtures), or as a replacement for Portland cement (blended cements).
A by-product of coal-fired electric generating plants, it is used to partially replace Portland cement (by up to 60% by mass). The properties of fly ash depend on the type of coal burnt. In general, siliceous fly ash is pozzolanic, while calcareous fly ash has latent hydraulic properties.
Ground granulated blast furnace slag (GGBFS or GGBS):
A by-product of steel production is used to partially replace Portland cement (by up to 80% by mass). It has latent hydraulic properties.
A by-product of the production of silicon and ferrosilicon alloys. Silica fume is similar to fly ash, but has a particle size 100 times smaller. This results in a higher surface to volume ratio and a much faster pozzolanic reaction. Silica fume is used to increase strength and durability of concrete, but generally requires the use of superplasticizers for workability.
High reactivity Metakaolin (HRM):
Metakaolin produces concrete with strength and durability similar to concrete made with silica fume. While silica fume is usually dark gray or black in color, high-reactivity metakaolin is usually bright white in color, making it the preferred choice for architectural concrete where appearance is important.