Taking Concrete Cues From the Romans

Taking Concrete Cues From the Romans

When you step into a nicely cooled room on a sweltering summer day or can warm up your house without having to build a fire in every single room as the snow piles up, you’re probably glad you live in modern times. Building materials have advanced to allow for much better insulation, strength and durability than that of the ancients.

However, just because something is modern does not always mean that it is necessarily better. Sure, nine times out of 10 it does, since most modern things are the product of thousands of years of innovation on an ancient concept. Sometimes, however, an ancient way of doing things isn’t improved but lost. When we discover a lost ancient method, there’s a chance that it manages to surpass a modern method.

Ahead of Their Time

The ancient Roman recipe for mixing concrete is one such example of a lost way of doing something that just might surpass its modern counterparts. For years, researchers wondered how it was possible for the concrete structure of Roman harbors to remain mostly intact despite 2,000 years of waves smashing up against them. Modern concrete structures in similar situations lasted for only 50 years. What were the Romans doing differently?

In 2013, researches took a sample of Roman concrete from the bottom of the Pozzuoli Bay in Naples, Italy. Researchers analyzed the sample, which dated back to 37 B.C., to discover its mineral components. They discovered that the concrete was made by mixing volcanic ash and lime. Placing the combination in seawater created a chemical reaction that cemented the mixture together.

Modern concrete – a mixture known as the Portland formula that has been used for about 200 years – does not contain the volcanic ash and lime mixture. Researchers believe that the mixture allowed for Roman concrete to bind at an incredibly high level the Portland formula is incapable of matching. It is for this reason, according to researchers, the modern concrete fails after decades, while Roman concrete lasts thousands of years.

The other drawback to Portland concrete is that it is not good for the environment – it accounts for 7 percent of the concrete industry’s carbon emissions. However, concrete companies have been on top of this issue. One program, known as Cool Climate Concrete, aims to remove 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year by using alternatives to Portland cement. One material used to replace it is fly ash – though not the exact same as volcanic ash, it works according to the same principles the Romans discovered.

So if you’re thinking about doing some concrete construction, consider the concrete that you choose to build with. Find out what exactly is in the mixture. No doubt the Portland formula is popular for a reason – almost everything you see is built with it – but it might not be as green or as long lasting as something you might find in an ancient Roman bay.

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