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Although concrete is an ancient building material, it is still generally misunderstood. 

Sure, engineers know how to manipulate concrete to build spectacular buildings, bridges and other structures, but the material is years behind other high-tech fields, such as semiconductors and pharamaceuticals.

Concrete is a complex, amorphous material, and it was not until recently that modern physics could help define it at the atomic level. 

Other similar materials, such as glasses and ceramics, are likewise experiencing scientific rebirths due to advances in quantum mechanics and computer modeling.

Earlier this month, I visited the Concrete Sustainability Hub at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Hamlin Jennnigs, the Hub's executive director, sits in a small office at the school's Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Outside, the hallway dead-ends at the Bechtel Lecture Hall.

Jennings says that empirical research has largely driven concrete's use. Such experiments involvetrial and error. Researchers observe. They wash, rinse and repeat. It's a terribly slow process, and when you are holding the public's safety in your hands, that's not always a bad thing.

However, as I explain in this week's story (and as we gear up to attend the annual World of Concrete show), MIT's objective is to define concrete from the bottom up and speed the pace of innovation. This starts with atoms. 

Once you understand those fundamental bonds, you can design new, high-performance materials from scratch. The hard part is conducting scientific research while industry—which is often funding the work—is hungry for new applications.

"The electronics industry is very used to the idea that basic science leads to unexpected breakthroughs, and those unexpected breakthroughs can have very large impacts," Jennings says. 

"We're performing research in cement from the very basic point of view, and that means that we are going to have unexpected findings, and those unexpected findings will lead to new strategies for the next generation of concrete."

Some critics have argued that MIT is merely giving its sponsors, namely, the Portland Cement Association and Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation, exactly what they want. After all, both groups kicked in $1 million each for five years, for a total of $10 million, to establish the Hub.

But Julie Garbini, the ready-mixed group's executive director, told me that MIT is helping the industry understand its own strengths and weaknesses in a time when the material is under fire to clean up its production, which contributes to a large portion of the world's carbon emissions, around 5%, according to most estimates. Roughly 75% of all concrete ends up in a ready-mixed plant.

"There is an increasing demand to quantify sustainability," Garbini says. "That is coming from the customer, the public and these various [green] rating systems."

Jennings admits that the closeness with industry exists. But he doesn't think it's a bad thing. Rather, he sees a complementary relationship.

"These are two different cultures—the culture of basic science research as its done in a university and industrial research," he says. 

Garbini adds, "They are very interested in research but not just for research's sake," speaking of the Hub's scientists. "They want to change the world."