I live in a winter city. Potholes are a reality on our roads, splits on our sidewalks, and cracks in our foundations. The number of construction stories here that include some version of “they had to replace the materials because they warped or broke in the extreme cold” is plentiful. But the thing is, these disruptions aren’t just inconvenient and potentially damaging to our personal pocketbooks (does anyone actually use a pocketbook anymore?). They result in high maintenance costs for municipalities as well as other governments. And they have significant environmental costs. Few of the materials can be or are recycled adding to already struggling landfills and the mining of materials like concrete has significant impacts. We aren’t going back to dirt roads and log cabins so developing alternative materials is vital to achieving sustainability. But it turns out that standard tests of materials is laborious and requires significant materials making it difficult to explore new options.
This is where research by Ange-Therese Akono comes in. Not only did Akono develop a new method of stress testing material during her PhD studies, she’s now applied this method to testing how carbon-based nano materials can be added to cement to increase its strength (2021). Being able to use smaller samples makes it more feasible to test multiple compositions before scaling up.
Akono’s findings are promising. She found that the nanoparticles decreased the porosity (how much of anything can get in) and the water absorption of the cement. This has huge potential for winter cities like Edmonton. If our roads and foundations are more resistant to water seeping in, there should be fewer cracks. Fewer cracks means less water getting in. The result is, hopefully, a reduction in potholes and expensive foundation repair. Less breakdown and repair should also mean less new material extraction and more money saved to spend on things other than road maintenance.
Obviously it will be a long time before we get rid of pothole season in Edmonton but this research and the new testing method created by Akono has a lot of potential.