Franz-Josef Ulm, director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, spoke at an open house this fall to discuss the hub's progress.
Franz-Josef Ulm, director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, spoke at an open house this fall to discuss the hub's progress.

Don't ask Franz-Josef Ulm about how concrete stacks up against asphalt or other competing materials in his recent testing and research. He will laugh and repeatedly note that “our research is not about concrete versus asphalt or concrete versus wood. Our focus is to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the different issues which relate to infrastructure and concrete only.”

Ulm, who is the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSH), credits the industry for “taking this bet” at a difficult time. “The industry is investing in fundamental research at a time when it's had its largest downturn,” he says. “The industry is positioning itself so that, hopefully, when we get to a recovery, it will come out of this difficult economic situation with better knowledge, better tools, and better methodologies to understand what is the environmental footprint and what is the cost to optimize the materials for specific applications.”

The CSH was established by the RMC Research & Education Foundation and the Portland Cement Association in 2009 to accelerate emerging breakthroughs in concrete science and engineering and to transfer that science into practice. Each organization committed $1 million per year for a total of $10 million for the funding.

“Concrete is one of the most exciting materials on earth,” says Ulm, a George Macomber professor at MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Progress in science and engineering brings this material to the same level as medical drug development and biological materials. We give this material the same attention you find in the semiconductor industry. Here at MIT, concrete is not just a gray material or a commodity. It is a value proposition.”

For its ongoing and painstaking research in concrete science and engineering, TCP names the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Concrete Sustainability Hub a 2012 Industry Influencer.

The CSH comprises three initiatives or platforms: the Concrete Material Science, Concrete Building Technology, and the Concrete Econometrics Platform of Sustainable Development.

What has surprised Ulm so far since the CSH started? “If you asked me 30 years ago if we would ever use atomic simulations in order to optimize concrete materials, I would say, ‘get real.' But this understanding has changed the way we think about concrete materials.” Researchers have drilled down to atoms and electrons, opening a whole new field of thinking about materials. “It completely redefines concrete science,” he adds.

So, what's in it for producers? The tools that are developed are not just for academics. These will be tools for engineers and academics. Ulm believes the life cycle cost analysis will be implemented over the next two years, and the Pavement-Vehicle Interaction Simulation will be in the field in 2013.

“For the research results to have an impact on the nation, we need to bring the results to the streets,” Ulm says.

Vision Statement

The CSH at MIT will revolutionize the scientific basis for evaluating the environmental impact of portland cement concrete, for optimizing the use of present materials, and for modifying present materials and developing new materials designed to achieve a fully sustainable physical infrastructure, including uses in ever more demanding environments.

Julia Garbini of the RMC Research and Education Foundation and Edward J. Sullivan of the Portland Cement Association, accept a Most Influential People in Concrete Award on behalf of MIT's Concrete Sustainability Hub.