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The rise of self-heating concrete technology

In a development that might soon render snow shovels and salt redundant, Drexel University researchers have unveiled a self-heating concrete technology poised to transform winter infrastructure in cold regions.

This innovative concrete, infused with phase-change materials, can autonomously maintain warmth, effectively fending off snow, sleet, and freezing rain.

This advancement promises significant reductions in both the environmental and economic costs associated with winter weather management. Furthermore, it extends the lifespan of concrete surfaces by preventing the wear and tear caused by freeze-thaw cycles and deicing chemicals.

Proof on campus

Located on Drexel University’s campus, two experimental concrete slabs have been successfully demonstrating this technology for over three years.

These slabs, each measuring 30 inches by 30 inches, have consistently resisted winter’s harshness without any manual intervention. They showcase the potential for a future where icy sidewalks and roads are things of the past.

The science of self-heating surfaces

The driving force behind this innovation is the desire to create infrastructure that is both environmentally friendly and resilient against the rigors of northern winters.

The United States, particularly its northern region, spends billions annually on snow and ice removal, not to mention the substantial costs of repairing winter-damaged roads.

According to Dr. Amir Farnam, associate professor at Drexel’s College of Engineering, the key to prolonging the life of concrete surfaces lies in their ability to remain above freezing temperatures during winter, thus eliminating the detrimental freeze-thaw cycles.

Bringing self-seating concrete into the real world

Over five years, Dr. Farnam’s team refined the self-heating concrete mix to lessen the need for plowing and salting. Their breakthrough showed its effectiveness in real-world conditions, thanks to low-temperature liquid paraffin.

This phase-change material releases heat during the liquid-to-solid transition, allowing the concrete to maintain surface temperatures between 42- and 55-degrees Fahrenheit for up to 10 hours in freezing conditions. This prevents ice formation and melts snow efficiently.

The researchers tested two methods for adding phase-change material to concrete. The first method involved pre-treating lightweight aggregate with paraffin. The second method involved mixing micro-capsules of paraffin directly into the concrete.

Over two years and through 32 freeze-thaw events and heavy snowfalls, both methods successfully kept surface temperatures above freezing. This prevented the structural damage typically caused by expansion and contraction.

Comparing warmth

The study revealed two key findings about concrete with phase-change materials. Concrete incorporating phase-change material in lightweight aggregate sustained warmth longer. Conversely, concrete with microencapsulated paraffin warmed up faster but also cooled down more quickly.

This suggests the former is better for deicing, releasing heat slowly, especially in sub-zero temperatures.

However, effectiveness varies with factors like ambient temperature and snowfall rate. Although the self-heating concrete can’t fully prevent heavy snow accumulation, it’s very effective for snowfalls under two inches, providing a greener alternative to road salting.

Continuous improvement and long-term impact

As the Drexel team continues to refine this technology, their research underscores the potential of self-heating concrete to significantly reduce the incidence of freeze-thaw cycles, enhancing the durability of concrete surfaces compared to traditional materials.

This promising development marks a significant stride toward more sustainable and resilient infrastructure capable of withstanding the challenges of winter weather.

The study is published in the journal Materials in Civil Engineering.


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