Scientists create bendable concrete that could better withstand earthquakes

The concrete is made from coal plant waste and synthetic fibers.

Scientists at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne have developed a new process that could one day allow bendable concrete to go mainstream. It could also lower the carbon footprint associated with making the building material.

Instead of traditional "Portland" cement, this new concrete incorporates fly ash, which is a byproduct of burning coal for power. In a way, using ash to make concrete is something of an old trick. Ancient Roman engineers mixed volcanic ash and quicklime to create their signature building material, and it's one of the reasons some of the structures they built still stand today. What the team at Swinburne University have managed to do is to incorporate synthetic fibers into their concrete mix, and create a process to manufacture it without heating the mix to cure it.

The advantages this concrete presents are two-fold. First of all, it's a lot more environmentally friendly to produce. Since there's no need to heat limestone to make the cement component, the team at Swinburne claims it requires 36 percent less energy to make than conventional bendable concrete. The process also emits 76 percent less carbon dioxide. It's worth pointing out it makes use of a material that, for better and worse, is widely available in the US and other countries around the world.

Meanwhile, the polymer fibers inside the concrete allow it to sustain multiple "hair-sized" fractures and not break into separate pieces. According to Dr. Behzad Nematollahi, one of the researchers who developed the material, it's 400 times more bendable than regular concrete, making it ideal for use in places where earthquakes are frequent.

Bendable concrete isn't a new concept. It was first developed by Dr. Victor Li, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Michigan, in the early 1990s. However, the issue has always been producing material affordably. The concrete created by Dr. Li was, as of last year, four times more expensive to make than traditional concrete. A team of LSU researchers developed a way to make the material less costly to produce, but widespread deployment is still years away.