This month I reviewed a book about materials by my favorite author, Vaclav Smil. If you remember just one thing from the review, it would probably be this infographic, which captures what Smil calls the most stunning statistic in his book:
One of the big problems with putting down so much concrete is that it deteriorates. In the coming decades, the United States and China alone will need to spend trillions of dollars replacing and disposing of concrete laid down in the past generation. There are also environmental problems, including all the carbon dioxide that’s released during production.
But it’s important to remember concrete’s benefits too. Smil cites studies that say replacing mud floors with concrete floors in the world’s poorest homes would improve sanitation and cut the incidence of parasitic diseases by nearly 80 percent. Paving streets, he says, “boosts land and rental values, school enrollment, and overall economic activity and also improves access to credit.”
I am optimistic that innovation can help reduce the downsides of concrete. For example, mini-sensors embedded inside it could alert engineers when it needs to be replaced. And researchers are developing new materials that would cut down on our need for concrete in the first place.
So concrete is a complex topic, and as usual Smil does a great job educating you about it.