Editorial Notebook

Cement: material of past, present, future

By Peter Begonja February 14, 2018

There have been many important inventions and engineering breakthroughs throughout the years. But, what comes to mind as one of the most important to humanity? Cement is probably one of your top answers. By volume, the only thing that humans consume more of than water is cement. Cement clearly has had a large impact on history and continues to have a large impact on our daily lives.

Believe it or not, cement has been used for many centuries. The first people to use it on a large scale were the Romans. As early as around 100 AD, they used it to create large buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome. The recipe for cement is simple to understand. The general way to make it is to mix together small particles, such as sand, with slightly larger particles, such as pebbles, and add water. A paste is needed to set the mix, and the Romans used line and volcanic rock. Putting all this together makes concrete, the fundamental component for many of the buildings we see today.

It is interesting to note that between this time and the 1700s, this recipe for concrete had been lost. It was rediscovered again by a British engineer named John Smeaton. He was able to mix clay and lime to successfully build a lighthouse on the southern shore of England. This rediscovery sparked a race to come up with better combinations and improve the existing mixture. Currently, there are different types of cement that serve different purposes.

The widespread use of cement changed the course of human history. Urbanization was made possible and large cities began to grow. One of the most important aspects of cement is its ability to hold a structure together. Because of this, buildings have been able to get taller and support more people. Rapid production and use of cement has allowed some nations to advance quicker than others. The top three nations with the highest usage are China, India, and the United States. It is easy to see the correlation between the usage of cement and the three most populous nations in the world.

Cement is a fundamental part of the transportation world as well. Industrial, economic, and technological advancement would not have been achievable without an advanced network of roads and bridges. Sidewalks, pavements, and parking lots are all composed of this key component. Airports, railway stations, and tunnels are only a few examples of infrastructure that relies on cement for construction.

One of the downsides to the creation of cement is its carbon footprint. It is estimated that five to eight percent of the world’s global carbon emissions is attributed to the production of cement. Therefore, new ways of production are being investigated and experimented with in order to reduce the emissions. However, it looks like cement will continue to define how our future is created.