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Ancient Roman Concrete Outperforms Modern Equivalent
June 25, 2013

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The wonders of ancient Roman concrete continue to amaze scientists, and now the ancient formula is known to modern minds.

Researchers in Europe and the United States have found the formula that the Romans used to create concrete that has stood the test of time, by analyzing samples from breakwaters in the Mediterranean basin. The answer is in both the ingredients and the production method.

Modern concrete is usually a mix of cement, ash, and sand, with the cement being made up of various combinations of clay, gypsum, and limestone. The mixture is then hydrated (using water) and left to harden.

The Romans used volcanic ash and lime to make their concrete. If the concrete was intended for underwater use, the Romans put the mortar that resulted from the lime-ash mixture into a wooden frame and then put the whole thing in the sea, where the saltwater triggered a chemical reaction that sealed everything together. Scientists found that it was the lime that the Romans used that proved most effective in creating a binding agent when exposed to seawater.

Portland cement, the most common form used in the modern day, lacks the combination of lime and ash that was so successful for the Romans. As a result, even the strongest modern concrete can have a servicable life of less than half a century. Meanwhile, the breakwater from one of the locations sampled by the European and American researchers dates to 37 B.C. and is intact.

A further benefit, the researchers said, was that the Roman method produced very little carbon dioxide, which is not the case with the production of modern concrete.

The discovery appeared in a recent issue of both the Journal of the American Ceramic Society and American Mineralogist. The researchers hope that their discovery will change methods of making modern concrete.

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