How to create fracture-resistant cement

Nature's secrets provide blueprint for future materials

The molecular nano- and materials sciences are one of the four profile research areas at the University of Konstanz. Since 2010, Professor Helmut Cölfen has conducted highly successful research on a new generation of materials with tailor-made characteristics.

Learn from nature

At the University of Konstanz, researchers try to find the solutions to urgent problems by investigating new materials. For example: If cement is forced to bend through an earth quake, it will easily break and buildings collapse.

Nature provides the models. 95 % of mother of pearl in a seashell, for example, consists of brittle calcium carbonate. Nevertheless, it is 3000 times tougher than calcium carbonate.

The image shows how a beam of nanostructured cement cut out of a particle using ion rays bends under pressure from a micromanipulator (left) without breaking.

How we can reproduce natural high-performance materials

Querschnitt durch die Materialstruktur des künstlich hergestellten Perlmutts. Bildrechte: University of Science and Technology of China.
Querschnitt durch die Materialstruktur des künstlich hergestellten Perlmutts. Bildrechte: University of Science and Technology of China.

"How does nature manage to create such fantastic things as a seashell?", material scientist Professor Helmut Cölfen wonders.

Helmut Cölfen is professor of physical chemistry at the University of Konstanz. His main research is on crystallisation and biomineralisation processes and includes pioneering work in the field of non-classical crystallisation.

Properties of materials

Prof. Dr. Helmut Cölfen und Team
Prof. Dr. Helmut Cölfen und Team

Properties of materials

One factor determining the characteristics of a material are the characteristics of the particles it consists of. Researchers at the University of Konstanz are currently engaged in exploring the arrangement of the particles, i.e. the construction principle. The Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) "1214: Anisotropic Particles as Building Blocks: Tailoring Shape, Interactions and Structures", which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), conducts research on the precise and complex directional arrangement of the particles. "Our Collaborative Research Centre lays the foundation for a new generation of materials with tailor-made properties", says Professor Helmut Cölfen, spokesperson of the CRC.

Previous successes

Synthese eines "Mineral-Kunststoffes“ (hier: eines supramolekularen ACC/PAA-Hydrogels) durch Mischen von Calciumchlorid, Natriumcarbonat und Polyacrylsäure in Wasser.
Synthese eines "Mineral-Kunststoffes“ (hier: eines supramolekularen ACC/PAA-Hydrogels) durch Mischen von Calciumchlorid, Natriumcarbonat und Polyacrylsäure in Wasser.

Previous successes

One of Helmut Cölfen's goals is to use controlled crystal growth to create fracture-resistant cement. Profound knowledge of nature's blueprints helps the scientists to replace the brittle lime with mechanically better building materials that are much less prone to breaking.

The mineral plastic is already ready for application. Helmut Cölfen's research team has developed a hydrogel based on the guiding principle of "green chemistry". It has the properties of a bendable crab shell and is just as environmentally friendly since it can be produced and recycled without additional energy input.

The properties of such shapeable gels can be systematically changed, making the biomaterial remarkably versatile: its use ranges from building materials to medical applications. In short: a high-performance material.

Since 2010, Professor Helmut Cölfen has conducted highly successful research on a new generation of materials with tailor-made characteristics at the University of Konstanz. Helmut Cölfen is a multiple award-winning chemist and spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Centre "Anisotropic Particles as Building Blocks: Tailoring, Shape, Interactions and Structures", which has received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) for its interdisciplinary analysis of the controlled arrangement of particles in materials since 2016.

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