Posted on 21. Jun, 2011 by perspective in Academic Departments, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Issues, Magazine, Materials Science and Engineering, Research, Transportation Infrastructure, Video
Almost since the beginning of recorded history, people have used concrete substances in everything from infrastructure to artwork. Yet, recently as the early 1900s, there had been little scientific research of concrete and only a few standards existed to guide its modern-day mixing and implementation.
UW-Madison Mechanics Professor Owen Withey recognized this deficit and, in 1910, had the vision and ambition to begin what likely is the longest-running university concrete research project in the country. Planning tests at regular intervals, he and his students cast 100 years’ worth of concrete samples. “They decided that knowing the long-term properties of concrete would be a very valuable contribution,” says Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Steven Cramer. “They did it with no idea their experiment would ever be sustained. Step by step, the institution was there.”
In total, Withey and his students cast more than 2,500 concrete cylinders in 1910, 1923 and 1937. Later, Withey passed the research to Kurt F. Wendt, a mechanical engineering faculty member who later succeeded Withey as engineering dean. With Engineering Mechanics Professor George Washa, Wendt reported 50-year results based on the 1923 castings.
Cramer was an undergraduate in one of Washa’s last classes and, with Washa and Engineering Mechanics Professor Jesse Saemann, tested the 1937 specimens at the 50-year mark. Throughout the past 100 years, each researcher conducted additional tests at various intervals. Today, however, Cramer is the only one left—and in fall 2010, Withey’s 1910 longitudinal research project concluded under him.
Because his predecessors kept good records, Cramer knows exactly what went into the concrete mix and how it has performed in past tests. He and his students crushed the last of the 100-year-old samples in a slightly dusty, first-floor laboratory in Engineering Hall. They used a mammoth device called the million-pound test machine, which, using hydraulic pressure, exerts 50,000 pounds of pressure per minute on the concrete cylinders. Based on past results, they tracked how much force it took to break each specimen.
Unlike the early researchers, Cramer and his students also used modern-day tools, including microscopy, to study structural and chemical changes in the concrete. “What our contribution will be is the entire history of the life of these concrete specimens—what they were made out of, what the cement chemistry was at the time, the environmental conditions that they were exposed to, and then the properties at various points in time, from one week to two months, to 10 years to 30 years, to 50 years to 100 years,” says Cramer.
Like their predecessors, he and his students will publish the results. And that will close this century-old project (though Withey’s 1923 castings remain to mark yet another 100-year anniversary). “What’s unique is there’s not a laboratory study that has had the longevity of 100 years that one institution has been able to maintain,” says Cramer.
View a video about the project on the civil and environmental engineering playlist at www.youtube.com/engineeringuw.