October 2022 - Volume 18, Number 5

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Cement and Concrete: From the Romans to Mars

Luca Valentini, Maarten Broekmans, Jan Elsen, and Ruben Snellings Guest Editors

Table of Contents


Portland cement represents an essential commodity in a developing and quickly urbanizing world. However, the downside of its popularity is a massive ecological footprint, in terms of global warming potential and consumption of mineral and water resources. Therefore, the development of sustainable alternatives to ordinary Portland cement constitutes a fundamental technological and societal challenge. In this context, mineralogy and geochemistry play an important role in assessing primary and secondary resources for a new generation of cement and concrete that has a reduced ecological footprint, drawing from the knowledge of both ancient and modern binders. Mineralogical and geochemical tools are also essential to establishing a link between the basic physical and chemical processes that occur during the production, hardening, service life, and degradation of concrete.

  • Cement and Concrete—Past, Present, and Future
  • Historic Concrete Science: Opus Caementicium to “Natural Cements”
  • The Rise of Portland Cements
  • Alternative Non-Portland Binders
  • Polarization-fluorescence Microscopy in the Study of Aggregates and Concrete
  • Sustainable Sourcing of Raw Materials for Construction: From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond
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2022 Topics

Thematic Articles

Cement and Concrete—Past, Present, and Future

By Herbert Pöllmann, Ruben Snellings, and Luca Valentini
The need to meet the globally increasing demand for construction
materials, while reducing the environmental impact of cement and concrete production, poses a technological and societal dilemma. Detailed knowledge concerning the mineralogical, geochemical, and microstructural features of ancient and modern binders is fundamental for novel, sustainable, cement-based materials to be designed, manufactured, and deployed. This introduction provides several basic concepts related to cement and concrete, as well as a general overview of the role played by these construction materials in ancient civilizations and in today’s society, and of how they are expected to evolve to ensure a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient urban future.

Historic Concrete Science: Opus Caementicium to “Natural Cements”

By Jan Elsen, Marie D. Jackson, and Encarnación Ruiz-Agudo

The history of mineral components in cementitious materials begins with clays and bitumen in the most ancient mortars, followed by gypsum- and lime-based plasters, mortars, and concretes. Romans perfected the fabrication of extremely durable mortars that form the basis of audacious architectural monuments in Rome, massive harbor constructions, and water-proofed cisterns in the Mediterranean region. During the industrial revolution, “natural cements” were developed through the burning of impure limestone or Si- and Al-bearing materials blended with pure limestone. Delving into the past of concrete science and the composition, durability, and resilience of historic binders, mortars, and concretes can inspire the development of modern environmentally friendly cementitious materials.

The Rise of Portland Cements

By Karen L. Scrivener and Ruben Snellings
This chapter tells the story of Portland cement, from its invention in the
19th century until its present-day hegemony as the number one manufactured mineral product. The success story of Portland cement is rooted in
the unique combination of the abundance of its raw materials, the reactivity of the high-temperature clinker product toward water, and the properties of the calcium silicate and aluminate hydration products. Further development of Portland cements today mainly addresses the formidable challenge of reducing process CO2 emissions. Options include partial replacement of clinker by low-carbon resources, material-efficient use of cement and concrete products, and end-of-pipe carbon capture and storage or use.

Alternative Non-Portland Binders

By Theodore Hanein, Angeles G. De la Torre, Zuhua Zhang, and John L. Provis

A background on non-Portland cementitious binders is presented, f ollowed by a review of the key alternative binders that are currently of interest. The mineralogy of these cements is described, along with
phases present in the reacted/hardened materials. The similarities and differ-ences between the setting processes, as controlled by reactions at the solid–liquid interface, provide insight into the ways in which different classes of binders develop their performance and thus offer value to society.

Polarization-fluorescence Microscopy in the Study of Aggregates and Concrete

By Maarten A.T.M. Broekmans, Isabel Fernandes, Ola Fredin, and Annina Margreth


Concrete structures may develop deleterious damage, which significantly reduces service life, structural integrity, and safety, posing serious issues in large or otherwise critical infrastructure. Routine petrographic assessments, including microstructure, texture, and fabric, of concrete and its (gravel and sand) aggregate and binder constituents in thin section using polarization-fluorescence microscopy (PFM) enables the unequivocal identification of features that would otherwise remain hidden in conventional petrography. Rigorous preparation procedures preserve original microstructural details, make preparation artefacts recognizable, and ensure that the fluorescent emission can be quantified. This contribution outlines the preparation of fluorescence-impregnated thin sections and elaborates on the application of PFM to damaged concrete, with further examples from selected rock types commonly used for concrete aggregate.

Sustainable Sourcing of Raw Materials for Construction: From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond

By Luca Valentini, Kathryn R. Moore, and Mark Bediako

Each year, nearly 40 billion tonnes of raw materials extracted from the Earth’s crust feed into the construction industry. The associated material flows dramatically contribute to anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Therefore, more sustainable supply chains must be envisaged based on the use of locally available resources and the principles of circular economy. Drawing inspiration from vernacular architecture, innovative solutions for green construction based on sustainable exploitation of local resources can be posited. This strategy has also inspired the proposed practice of in situ resource utilization on planetary bodies such as the Moon and Mars.