The collapse of a 12-story Surfside, Florida condominium complex in June was partly caused by an explosive device hidden deep within the structure. Its concrete foundation, walls, and floors were reinforced with a steel reinforcing bar, a crucial but risky building element. Corrosion was found to be prevalent in this material after the structure collapsed, causing it to come apart.
Buildings like that condo skyscraper are erected using steel reinforcing bar, or rebar, which is vital to their structural strength. Rebar, on the other hand, can be corroded by moisture that can seep through concrete. This can lead to structures collapsing practically without warning. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) researchers have come up with an alternative.
Instead of utilizing steel to strengthen concrete, scientists have invented a composite reinforcing material comprised of remarkably strong hemp fiber. Rebar made from hemp stalks and resin or bioplastic can be used to replace steel rebar in concrete construction without posing any health risks.
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“There are some natural fibres that have a similar strength to steel for the same weight,” according to RPI architecture professor Alexandros Tsamis. Carbon fiber and fiberglass, as well as hemp, are strong synthetic materials. Hemp rebar can be used as an all-natural replacement for steel rebar when it is coupled with plant-based bioplast.
Tsamis explains that “instead of extracting it from the the earth, you grow it,” The potential of the material is enormous. Even on the sidewalks, steel rebar can be found. “It’s pervasive in any concrete structure. They are just rebar,” says Dan Walczyk, a mechanical engineering professor at RPI. “And it’s millions, if not billions, of dollars of construction material annually.”
The Florida condo collapse may have been avoided if the steel had not been used in concrete construction. Concrete in buildings and bridges might endure decades longer if corrosion was reduced. According to Tsamis, “By switching the material used in one object from steel to a composite of fibers, you can drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the building industry, because you extend the lifetime of structures,”
Tsamis and Walczyk, along with architecture student Daniel Cohen and mechanical engineering student Sharmad Joshi, are developing hemp rebar and the technology to create it. 3D printing is an analogy that Tsamis uses to describe the technology. To make hemp rebar filament, hemp fibers are wrapped in thermoplastic and then rolled into rope-like coils, which are then soldered together.
It is a car-sized machine that takes coiled material, heats it, and then consolidates it into hardened bars. The team is now creating a proof of concept machine for it to be tested. In order to make the hemp rebar on-site during construction projects, Tsamis said the machine is being constructed.
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Rebar may be bent into complex shapes using a die that is custom-made to match the project’s specifications, saving construction workers the time and effort of doing it by hand. According to Tsamis, the experiment began during the pandemic, when the university’s facilities were closed, and the material was not particularly difficult to make.
“The first experiments that we did with consolidating happened in kitchen ovens,” Tsamis says. “And the first ropes we were making by hand. I had my son pull the other side of the rope I was making at my desk. My student’s cat was chewing on the rope while he was making his own version. So the beginnings of it were pretty modest in terms of the technology we had available.”
However, there are still some difficulties. According to Walczyk, industrial hemp cultivation, which became legal in the United States only last year, lags well behind other countries. Biological plastics, on the other hand, are still in their infancy.
According to Walczyk, “There’s a lot of uncertainty in where these materials are coming from,” “If we were to develop this technology in the next two weeks, we don’t necessarily have the material supply chain for it.” Hemp-based rebar could be easily substituted for steel in the construction industry once it becomes widely available, according to Tsamis.
“It is already being used by people. As Tsamis says, “People already know how to work with it. All the construction methods and all the know-how is there,” It is possible that hemp rebar may be used in buildings for a few more years. Still, researchers are already talking with many significant construction companies about how the material could be used in future construction.
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By cooperating with industry, including rope producers, Walczyk and Tsamis believe the technology might be brought into production more quickly. In light of climate change’s impact on the building industry, decreasing the usage of harmful materials like steel will become increasingly vital.
Tsamis believes that hemp rebar is the kind of natural material that the sector could use to reduce its large environmental footprint. According to him, “It will demand a high volume of production, so we think it’s going to force some of the supply chain things to fall into place,”