This startup thinks it's got the crack problem cracked
Mimicrete's self-healing concrete could mean stronger structures and less carbon
I’ll be honest, I’d never really taken much of an interest in concrete until I started working on today’s edition. But that’s part of the fun of producing this newsletter - I have my mind opened to all sorts of new technologies and ideas way beyond the ‘apps and gadgets’ world that commonly gets referred to as tech, and I get to share the best of them with you.
Scroll down to read all about Mimicrete’s take on concrete that heals its cracks all by itself. The Cambridge-based team are entering the construction industry backed by years of academic research. As usual, paid-up members get the full story.
Speaking of members, I’m going to be looking to highlight some of our members in future issues. If you’re a paying subscriber, I’ll be reaching out to you soon. Feel free to get in touch first if you’re keen, as I’d love to share a bit about what you’re working on.
And just a note to share that the social-impact minded venture builders at Zinc are currently looking for “70 entrepreneurial individuals from across the globe to build businesses that will transform the industries that have the most impact on our environmental crisis”.
Mimicrete has a better way to stop concrete cracks before they’re a problem
Concrete is all around us, but it’s prone to cracking, which isn’t ideal for such a widely used construction material. Modern techniques that allow concrete to ‘self-heal’ its cracks have been around since the 1990s, although the concept is said to go back to Roman times. Now a Cambridge-based startup thinks it has the best approach yet, which could mean structures have longer lives with less need for costly and disruptive maintenance work.
Mimicrete has developed technology for a vascular system of tubes inside new concrete structures (yes, like ‘veins’ inside the concrete), that deploys microcapsules to fill in cracks large and small, as they emerge.
“It's very much like the human body,” says CEO and co-founder Arta Selmani. “If you have a cut, blood will flow to that spot and coagulate and close the wound, so the same will be with concrete. Where there is a crack, that crack will trigger the tubes to crack as well, and release the self healing agent that is inside. It coagulates and closes the crack, and it stops further damage within the concrete structure.”
Selmani explains that while there are various causes of cracking in concrete, such as tension and temperature, water is a common cause, where further water entering a crack then exacerbates the problem. “You've seen bridges collapsing because it's almost impossible to do maintenance and look closely where a crack is. We think a self-healing vascular system will autonomously heal itself wherever the crack is - probably even [cracks] humans sometimes can’t detect or see.”
Mimicrete’s technology is based on the academic research of co-founders Dr Liz Zijing Li (the startup’s COO) and Dr Livia Ribeiro de Souza (CTO) at the University of Cambridge.
Li says their work brings together the best attributes of previous approaches to self-healing concrete, while overcoming their shortcomings. She says ‘autogenous’ self-healing concrete can only fill small cracks, and don’t work over a long period of time. While ‘autonomous’ healing approaches have a longer lifespan, they still only work with small cracks, and the self-healing agent itself can be fragile.
Mimicrete can’t say exactly how much longer a lifespan their self-healing system has versus other approaches, but Li says in the lab, it’s on average twice as long. The startup is currently taking part in a commercial trial with concrete walling company JP Concrete. One thing this trial will provide is more data about how many years longer the approach’s lifespan will last.
Another advantage Mimicrete is touting is reduced carbon emissions from the construction industry. Cement production is a significant contributor to worldwide carbon emissions, and there are various initiatives underway to address that. Mimicrete can be one of those, Selmani says, because the presence of its vascular system means less cement is required in the construction process, while the system in action means less cement should be needed for concrete repairs.
Bringing it to market
Mimicrete was born last year after Li decided to investigate commercialising the academic research she had been working on with Ribeiro de Souza for the past few years. They were introduced to Selmani, who has a background in entrepreneurship and management consultancy, and the trio co-founded the startup last autumn.
At present, Mimicrete’s product is at a prototype stage. The JP Concrete partnership is part of the process of piloting and testing its capabilities and market positioning. The plan is to move towards high-impact, but highly regulated, applications like sea defence walls, reservoirs, or airport runways.
Selmani says the focus is on “different kinds of application that will add to the lifespan, or reduce the costs of maintenance, and just increase the efficiency of that structure. So these are the ones that really are trying to solve a problem - not just a technology that is nice to have, but that really is a necessity in that market, or in that application.”
Modernising, decarbonising, self-regulating
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