Analysis of samples of ancient Roman concrete pinpointed why the best Roman concrete was superior to most modern concrete in durability, why its manufacture was less environmentally damaging – and how these improvements could be adopted in the modern world.
“It’s not that modern concrete isn’t good – it’s so good we use 19 billion tons of it a year,” says Paulo Monteiro (U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). “The problem is that manufacturing Portland cement accounts for seven percent of the carbon dioxide that industry puts into the air.”
Portland cement is the source of the “glue” that holds most modern concrete together. But making it releases carbon from burning fuel, needed to heat a mix of limestone and clays to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit) – and from the heated limestone (calcium carbonate) itself. Monteiro’s team found that the Romans, by contrast, used much less lime and made it from limestone baked at 900˚ C, or lower, requiring far less fuel than Portland cement.
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is one powerful incentive for finding a better way to provide the concrete the world needs; another is the need for stronger, longer-lasting buildings, bridges, and other structures. Roman harbor installations have survived 2,000 years of chemical attack and wave action underwater. We now expect our construction to last 50 to 100 years.
The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction. The lime was hydrated – incorporating water molecules into its structure – and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together.