Rethinking concrete

Posted: June 16, 2022

Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Lisa Burris' research focuses on increasing the sustainability of concrete construction through the use of novel supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs) and alternative cementitious materials (ACMs). Her work to advance these and other techniques was cited by the American Concrete Institute (ACI) this spring when the organization presented Burris with ACI's Young Member Award for Professional Achievement.

Lisa Burris in lab

Burris' Cementitious Materials Novel Technologies (CeMNT) Research Group currently employs a three-pronged approach to its investigations, which intend to benefit both industry and the public-at-large.

"My group is working on current issues that are important to industry and will be utilized immediately," she said, "such as use of non-standard fly ashes in concrete, and understanding what properties in supplementary cementitious materials are influential in controlling concrete performance."

CeMNT researchers are also pursuing the development and understanding of rapid setting specialty cements and approaches to using those materials in construction. The third element of Burris' research, which includes the development of large-scale concrete water filtration systems, utilizing agricultural byproducts or plastics to reduce concrete’s cement requirements, and increasing concrete’s carbon sequestration ability, is more exploratory in nature. 

Burris was optimistic that, over time, this diverse approach to research will yield significant advances in the concrete industry. "I hope this will bring a balance between developing some research understanding that can drive immediate improvements to concrete’s sustainability and simultaneously move us towards being able to utilize more impactful approaches over the long term," she said.

ACI, a leading global authority for the development, dissemination, and adoption of its consensus-based standards, technical resources, and educational, training, & certification programs for the concrete industry, noted Burris' "contributions to advancing knowledge on the use of sustainable materials and binders in concrete infrastructure" in its award announcement.

Lisa Burris talking to students about concrete testing
Burris discussing concrete testing with students

Burris has mentored numerous undergraduate and graduate students, encouraging them to consider engineering careers that address concrete's worldwide role in building and maintaining critical infrastructure. She was impressed by their creative approaches to improving a material that accounts for roughly eight percent of global, carbon dioxide emissions.

Recently, undergraduate students in her Civil Engineering Materials course investigated methods of increasing concrete's sustainability through the use of seashells and plastics as supplementary cementitious materials. Some students optimized pervious concrete filtration, even developing their own tests to track flow rate, while other groups investigated developing magnetic concrete.

Based on her students' novel approaches to concrete research, Burris is further integrating this new thinking into the undergraduate Civil Engineering Materials laboratory course, in addition to developing graduate level coursework in this area.

"I’ve been really excited by the creativity of our undergraduates after they’ve been exposed to the idea that we, as engineers, can have a significant influence on the carbon footprint of our infrastructure materials," she offered.