Concrete plant facility showing a Concrete mixer being filled from the ingredient silos.
Concrete production is the process of mixing together the various ingredients—water, aggregate, cement, and any additives—to produce concrete. Concrete production is time-sensitive. Once the ingredients are mixed, workers must put the concrete in place before it hardens. In modern usage, most concrete production takes place in a large type of industrial facility called a concrete plant, or often a batch plant.
In general usage, concrete plants come in two main types, ready mix plants and central mix plants. A ready mix plant mixes all the ingredients except water, while a central mix plant mixes all the ingredients including water. A central mix plant offers more accurate control of the concrete quality through better measurements of the amount of water added, but must be placed closer to the work site where the concrete will be used, since hydration begins at the plant.
A concrete plant consists of large storage hoppers for various reactive ingredients like cement, storage for bulk ingredients like aggregate and water, mechanisms for the addition of various additives and amendments, machinery to accurately weigh, move, and mix some or all of those ingredients, and facilities to dispense the mixed concrete, often to a concrete mixer truck.
Modern concrete is usually prepared as a viscous fluid, so that it may be poured into forms, which are containers erected in the field to give the concrete its desired shape. There are many different ways in which concrete formwork can be prepared, such as Slip forming and Steel plate construction. Alternatively, concrete can be mixed into dryer, non-fluid forms and used in factory settings to manufacture Precast concrete products.
There is a wide variety of equipment for processing concrete, from hand tools to heavy industrial machinery. Whichever equipment builders use, however, the objective is to produce the desired building material; ingredients must be properly mixed, placed, shaped, and retained within time constraints. Once the mix is where it should be, the curing process must be controlled to ensure that the concrete attains the desired attributes. During concrete preparation, various technical details may affect the quality and nature of the product.
When initially mixed, Portland cement and water rapidly form a gel of tangled chains of interlocking crystals, and components of the gel continue to react over time. Initially the gel is fluid, which improves workability and aids in placement of the material, but as the concrete sets, the chains of crystals join into a rigid structure, counteracting the fluidity of the gel and fixing the particles of aggregate in place. During curing, the cement continues to react with the residual water in a process of hydration. In properly formulated concrete, once this curing process has terminated the product has the desired physical and chemical properties. Among the qualities typically desired, are mechanical strength, low moisture permeability, and chemical and volumetric stability.
See also: Volumetric concrete mixer and Concrete mixer
Thorough mixing is essential for the production of uniform, high-quality concrete. For this reason equipment and methods should be capable of effectively mixing concrete materials containing the largest specified aggregate to produce uniform mixtures of the lowest slump practical for the work.
Separate paste mixing has shown that the mixing of cement and water into a paste before combining these materials with aggregates can increase the compressive strength of the resulting concrete. The paste is generally mixed in a high-speed, shear-type mixer at a w/cm (water to cement ratio) of 0.30 to 0.45 by mass. The cement paste premix may include admixtures such as accelerators or retarders, superplasticizers, pigments, or silica fume. The premixed paste is then blended with aggregates and any remaining batch water and final mixing is completed in conventional concrete mixing equipment.
High-energy mixed (HEM) concrete is produced by means of high-speed mixing of cement, water and sand with net specific energy consumption of at least 5 kilojoules per kilogram of the mix. A plasticizer or a superplasticizer is then added to the activated mixture, which can later be mixed with aggregates in a conventional concrete mixer. In this process, sand provides dissipation of energy and creates high-shear conditions on the surface of cement particles. This results in the full volume of water interacting with cement. The liquid activated mixture can be used by itself or foamed (expanded) for lightweight concrete. HEM concrete hardens in low and subzero temperature conditions and possesses an increased volume of gel, which drastically reduces capillarity in solid and porous materials.
Pouring and smoothing out concrete at Palisades Park in Washington DC.
Main article: Concrete slump test
Workability is the ability of a fresh (plastic) concrete mix to fill the form/mold properly with the desired work (vibration) and without reducing the concrete's quality. Workability depends on water content, aggregate (shape and size distribution), cementitious content and age (level of hydration) and can be modified by adding chemical admixtures, like superplasticizer. Raising the water content or adding chemical admixtures increases concrete workability. Excessive water leads to increased bleeding (surface water) and/or segregation of aggregates (when the cement and aggregates start to separate), with the resulting concrete having reduced quality. The use of an aggregate with an undesirable gradation can result in a very harsh mix design with a very low slump, which cannot readily be made more workable by addition of reasonable amounts of water.
Workability can be measured by the concrete slump test, a simplistic measure of the plasticity of a fresh batch of concrete following the ASTM C 143 or EN 12350-2 test standards. Slump is normally measured by filling an "Abrams cone" with a sample from a fresh batch of concrete. The cone is placed with the wide end down onto a level, non-absorptive surface. It is then filled in three layers of equal volume, with each layer being tamped with a steel rod to consolidate the layer. When the cone is carefully lifted off, the enclosed material slumps a certain amount, owing to gravity. A relatively dry sample slumps very little, having a slump value of one or two inches (25 or 50 mm) out of one foot (305 mm). A relatively wet concrete sample may slump as much as eight inches. Workability can also be measured by the flow table test.
Slump can be increased by addition of chemical admixtures such as plasticizer or superplasticizer without changing the water-cement ratio. Some other admixtures, especially air-entraining admixture, can increase the slump of a mix.
High-flow concrete, like self-consolidating concrete, is tested by other flow-measuring methods. One of these methods includes placing the cone on the narrow end and observing how the mix flows through the cone while it is gradually lifted.
After mixing, concrete is a fluid and can be pumped to the location where needed.
A concrete slab ponded while curing.
In all but the least critical applications, care must be taken to properly cure concrete, to achieve best strength and hardness. This happens after the concrete has been placed. Cement requires a moist, controlled environment to gain strength and harden fully. The cement paste hardens over time, initially setting and becoming rigid though very weak and gaining in strength in the weeks following. In around 4 weeks, typically over 90% of the final strength is reached, though strengthening may continue for decades. The conversion of calcium hydroxide in the concrete into calcium carbonate from absorption of CO2 over several decades further strengthens the concrete and makes it more resistant to damage. However, this reaction, called carbonation, lowers the pH of the cement pore solution and can cause the reinforcement bars to corrode.
Hydration and hardening of concrete during the first three days is critical. Abnormally fast drying and shrinkage due to factors such as evaporation from wind during placement may lead to increased tensile stresses at a time when it has not yet gained sufficient strength, resulting in greater shrinkage cracking. The early strength of the concrete can be increased if it is kept damp during the curing process. Minimizing stress prior to curing minimizes cracking. High-early-strength concrete is designed to hydrate faster, often by increased use of cement that increases shrinkage and cracking. The strength of concrete changes (increases) for up to three years. It depends on cross-section dimension of elements and conditions of structure exploitation.
During this period concrete must be kept under controlled temperature and humid atmosphere. In practice, this is achieved by spraying or ponding the concrete surface with water, thereby protecting the concrete mass from ill effects of ambient conditions. The picture to the right shows one of many ways to achieve this, ponding – submerging setting concrete in water and wrapping in plastic to contain the water in the mix. Additional common curing methods include wet burlap and/or plastic sheeting covering the fresh concrete, or by spraying on a water-impermeable temporary curing membrane.
Properly curing concrete leads to increased strength and lower permeability and avoids cracking where the surface dries out prematurely. Care must also be taken to avoid freezing or overheating due to the exothermic setting of cement. Improper curing can cause scaling, reduced strength, poor abrasion resistance and cracking.