• Tech Tech

Scientists learn secrets to Roman concrete that's kept structures standing for 2,000 years: 'It sustains itself'

Methods from the past could be further examined to fortify buildings sustainably.

Methods from the past could be further examined to fortify buildings sustainably.

Photo Credit: iStock

The answer to sustainable building could come in the form of a strange list of ingredients: bark, rice, beer, urine, and volcanic rock.

As the Associated Press reported, these are the substances builders in years gone by used to create impressive structures that still stand today in places like Italy, China, and Honduras.

Scientists have been trying to find out why buildings and structures created centuries ago are still holding up so well in the face of time, changing weather conditions, and other forms of decay.

By taking chunks of these buildings and studying the ingredients, some fascinating materials have been found, as well as some with remarkable healing properties.

For example, as the AP reported, via CBC, a study from Admir Masic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that the lime used in some Roman buildings would start a reaction with water that seeped into the concrete, and that could effectively fill in damaged parts of a wall. 

A similar effect might be achieved for buildings made with volcanic rock. As geologist Marie Jackson from the University of Utah explained to the AP, volcanic rocks from past eruptions added to concrete can interact with different elements and seal cracks.

"The concrete was so well designed that it sustains itself," Jackson told the news agency.

Meanwhile, per the report, extracts from local chukum and jiote trees in buildings in Honduras have made the resulting mixture extremely durable, while the starch from rice has been used in the concrete that holds together the Great Wall of China.

Among the other ingredients found in ancient structures are fruit extracts, milk, cheese curd, beer, dung, and urine, as the AP noted.

Making buildings that last is key to a sustainable future. Modern structures use materials like steel, concrete, and brick that produce a lot of pollution to form, so alternatives need to be utilized to avoid further planet-warming consequences. 

Ensuring durability is also key, as global heating increases the threat of extreme weather events like hurricanes, storms, and wildfires, which are at times lasting longer and becoming more intense. If buildings can withstand these issues, there's less of a need to replace them. 

While Roman concrete perhaps isn't the answer to making high-rise buildings, methods from the past could be further examined to fortify buildings sustainably. Even coffee grounds are being used to make concrete 30% stronger in Australia.

The construction industry — one of the world's largest polluters by sector — needs to make changes to be kinder to the planet, and to keep buildings standing for much longer in the face of increasing challenges. 

Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.

Cool Divider