Urban landscapes are already heading toward a future of hyper-connectivity, where wireless networks, sensors, gadgets and car communicate with each other. Now engineers are working on conductive concrete that create an electrified infrastructure able to power vehicles, make roads and bridges "smart" and even thwart cyber attacks.
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Several organizations, such as the Building Envelope and Structure research group at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), have already developed and patented formulas for electrically conductive concrete and have proven its application in small-scale operations. So what's the recipe?
Cement, water and an aggregate - usually gravel or sand - makes a typical batch of concrete. But add a conductive aggregate, like graphene, and the mix becomes electrically conductive. By tweaking the formula, the concrete could potentially be used in roads and sidewalks that melt ice, or to heat residential floors. But according to NRC's Rick Rick Zaporzan, conductive concrete goes way beyond ice melting and heating.
"With a few tweaks, it can be used for developing a crack-detection system if it's hooked up to proper sensors that can monitor and interpret that data," he told Txchnologist.
Zaporzan says the material could also be used in buildings to block or deflect unwanted electromagnetic signals, shield classified data and protect sensitive medical equipment.
As of now, plugging the concrete into the power grid has remained the best option for a power source. However, that could prove costly, not to mention how it would suck energy and resources away from other outlets if, say, an entire highway was to be electrified. But Zaporzan is optimistic, especially if one considers alternative energy options such as wind, solar and hydrogen fuel cells to help power the conductive concrete.
So when can we expect this concrete to start popping up at construction sites and highway projects? "It could be commercialized within one to two years, but we need industry partners," Zaporzan said. "These partners could be anybody who wants to take their product further, from building or bridge owners, medical equipment manufacturers or architects and urban designers."
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When all's said and done, and the concrete is ready to be poured, I propose taking it to London's Brixton Market, home to one of the world's first electrically lit streets and inspiration for Eddie Grant's hit song, none other than Electric Avenue. The street could be repaved with conductive concrete and truly live up to its name. Sure, some South Londoners might object, but they might sing a different tune while taking a winter stroll through the market, especially if the pavement is nice and toasty.