Materials 4 Life

Year:2018

Duration:5 years and counting

Cost:Unknown

Country: United Kingdom

What did this project achieve?

Develop a new generation of construction materials that can repair themselves

Resilient Materials for Life (RM4L) is a government-backed research project based at Cardiff, Bath, Bradford and Cambridge universities.

The scheme is developing a range of ‘resilient’ construction materials. A resilient material is one that can adapt to its environment and develop ‘immunity’ to harmful actions or situations.

A resilient material could self-diagnose any problems it was experiencing and ‘self-heal’ when it was damaged. Potentially, a concrete structure repairing its own cracks.

The RM4L project has 4 main areas of research. These are:

  • self-healing of cracks
  • studies into loading of materials
  • self-diagnosis of physical damage
  • healing of chemical damage

RM4L is also studying bacteria which may be able to make building materials repair themselves.

The hope is that successful results from these and similar research programmes will improve the reliability and longevity of infrastructure materials such as concrete.

RM4L predicts that over the next 200 years, ‘civil engineering and our future built environment will be transformed by this project’.

Difference this research could make

Many construction materials such as concrete are costly to maintain and environmentally harmful to produce. Producing cement to make concrete is responsible for 8% of C02 emissions worldwide.

RM4L is looking at ways of designing concrete structures to be more sustainable and resilient.

Successful RM4L programmes could see reductions in carbon emissions as well as the upkeep costs of some concrete structures.

How the work was done

One RM4L project has seen engineers and researchers design a scheme to trial ‘self-healing’ concrete at a site in Wales run by engineering company Costain.

The programme aims to create a system which senses damage and repairs it without human intervention.

Researchers cast 6 concrete walls at the test site – each wall containing different technologies.

One technology saw the project team trialling shape-shifting memory polymers to see if they could repair large cracks. Also known as smart materials, these can change shape when prompted by an external stimulus such as a temperature change or moisture.

Another technique saw researchers pumping organic healing agents through a network of thin tunnels in concrete to help fix damage.

A third experiment saw the team embed tiny capsules into concrete. These contained bacteria that reacted when cracks occurred.

Researchers loaded the concrete samples to create cracks. They then monitored how effective each technique was at repairing those cracks.

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Self-healing materials… will significantly enhance durability, improve safety and reduce maintenance costs.

Bob Lark

RM4L principal investigator Bob talking to the BBC, 2015.

Fascinating facts

Concrete is the second-most used material on earth after water. Around 3 tonnes of concrete are produced every year for each person in the world.

Repairing and maintaining concrete is expensive. The UK spends £40bn on keeping concrete structures safe every year.

Keeping the UK’s concrete-hungry road infrastructure up to scratch is also expensive. A local authority survey in 2014 suggested it would take 10 years and cost £12bn to fill all the potholes in England and Wales.

People who made it happen

  • Principal investigator: Professor Bob Lark (ICE member)
  • Project funding: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

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