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Ceramic technology is almost as old as human civilization, and the use of ceramic materials in buildings has been consistently adopted by humans for around 30,000 years.
Ceramics are versatile materials and have not stopped evolving. Modern building ceramics are often treated to achieve a range of special properties and to improve their overall quality.
Ceramic materials have a crystalline structure, are inorganic and non-metallic, and are typically porous. They have been used as construction materials throughout human history due to their useful properties of hardness, high compression strength, and resistance to both high temperatures and chemical erosion.
Examples of ceramics used for buildings include bricks and the mortar that ties them into walls, cement, concrete and tiles. These materials are generally manufactured through firing methods, in which a base material such as clay is hardened in a high-temperature kiln.
Some of the undesirable features of building ceramics include brittleness, shearing weakness, tension weakness, and relatively high environmental costs to their manufacture. This article introduces some treatments used to either improve on ceramics’ desirable properties or minimize the effects of undesirable features.
Superabsorbent polymers (SAPs) are a class of polymer material (or plastic) that are capable of absorbing large amounts of water relative to their mass. Developed in the 1960s by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), SAPs can be added to cement mixtures to improve the longevity of concrete.
A salt made of the SAP is added to the dry cement powder. When this dry cement is mixed with water and aggregate to form concrete, the resulting material becomes more resistant to cracks forming due to the higher covalent bond strength of water molecules compared to cement.
As well as stopping cracks from forming, SAPs with live bacteria embedded within them can also be used to turn cement into so-called “self-healing” concrete. In this method, water molecules entering a crack in degraded concrete are absorbed by the SAP material, which, in turn, soaks the surrounding concrete. When the concrete dries, it will cure hard again as it does in the initial application. This effectively heals the crack and significantly prolongs the life of the building material.
Cement can also be improved with the addition of geopolymers. These inorganic materials are defined by their ability to form long-range, non-crystalline networks of molecules through covalent bonding.
When added to cement, geopolymers can help in the production of foamable cement. The resulting building ceramic is a very poor thermal conductor, which makes it an ideal material for buildings seeking high thermal insulation properties.
In addition to improving the quality of building ceramics, treatments with geopolymers result in a far more environmentally friendly manufacturing process requiring less energy than traditional Portland cement.
Smart Ceramic Materials
Recent developments in building ceramics have incorporated “smart” technology to produce interior and structural components alike: floor tiles manufactured with piezoelectric components can sense movement around a building to efficiently manage lighting and heating systems; wireless charging can be included in kitchen countertops; and heat sensors connected to a central hub can significantly reduce waste in heating systems.
Reasons to Improve the Quality of Building Ceramics
These treatments are essential in continuing to improve the quality of building ceramics. Prolonging the lifespan of structural components means that buildings have more time to break even.
Improving the mechanical properties of ceramics means that buildings can be made more robust and more practical to live and work in. The introduction of smart technology means that more aspects of the building can be incorporated into the Internet of Things (IoT).
There are also substantial environmental benefits to improving building ceramics. The climate emergency declared by governments around the world requires a widespread change in the ways we use the earth’s resources, and, as one of the most resource-intensive industries, construction will benefit greatly from continual advancement in its technologies.
References and Further Reading
Mignon, A., Devisscher, D., Graulus, G.-J., Stubbe, B., Martins, J., Dubruel, P., De Belie, N. and Van Vlierberghe, S. (2017) Combinatory approach of methacrylate alginate and acid monomers for concrete applications. Carbohydrate Polymers, 155, pp.448–455.
Moore, S. (2020) How are Geopolymers Used in Foam Concrete and Why are they Useful in Cold Regions? [online] AZoBuild.com. Available at: https://www.azobuild.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8413.
Pilkington, B. (2019) How are Ceramics Used in Construction? [Online] AZoBuild. Available at: https://www.azobuild.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8367.
Pilkington, B.. (2019) Superabsorbent Polymers in Construction Materials. [Online] AZoBuild. Available at: https://www.azobuild.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8372.
Vandiver, P.B., Soffer, O., Klima, B., and Svoboda, J., The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia. Science, Vol. 246, Nov. 24, 1989, pp. 1002-1008.