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Science of Building Materials Research Group at Princeton University

Princeton University

Princeton University
Durability of Building Materials
George Scherer

November 2015


Deterioration of the infrastructure imposes huge costs on society, directly for repair and replacement, and indirectly by hampering economic activity and reducing quality of life. Moreover, manufacture of building materials contributes significantly to global warming. Our goal is to understand the fundamental mechanisms by which salt, ice, and other environmental agents cause damage to concrete and stone, so that the processes can be delayed or prevented. The same physical mechanisms imperil monuments and works of art, so much of our effort is focused on conservation of cultural heritage. Geosequestration of CO2 is an essential component of plans to reduce greenhouse gases. The first sites that are likely to be used for CO2 injection are depleted petroleum reservoirs where impermeable rock layers trapped oil and gas for millions of years. Those sites could be vulnerable to leakage if there are flaws in the cement used to fill the wells formerly used for extraction. Therefore, we are studying the rate of corrosion of cement in carbonic acid, and the change in transport and mechanical properties of the corroded cement. The goal is to predict the rate of leakage through pre-existing cracks or gaps in cement-sealed wells. 


We investigate the fundamental mechanisms responsible for damage to stone and concrete, so that we can attack the cause, rather than treating the symptoms. Modeling is used to predict the effects of suspected mechanisms, and experiments, often using novel methods, provide quantitative tests of the models. Once the mechanisms are identified, protective measures can be developed to thwart them.


The cause of "salt scaling" damage to concrete was explained in the thesis research of John Valenza, and the mechanism of action of air voids during freezing of concrete has been explained by the work of Zhenhua Sun. The strain caused by freezing of mortar can be quantitatively predicted by poromechanical calculations. Tim Wangler's research explained the buckling mechanism leading to damage of claybearing stone, and showed that certain surfactants can suppress the swelling. Polymer treatments being developed by Meg McNall protect limestone from damage by sulfate salts. 


Our research demonstrates that fundamental understanding of damage mechanisms can lead to effective preventive measures. Treatments to reduce damage to stone containing swelling clays, and limestones containing salts, are ready for field testing. Methods for enhancing frost resistance of concrete (by introduction of nucleating agents) and corrosion resistance of marble (by epitaxial deposition of durable mineral films) are being developed. A reactive transport model to describe corrosion of cement paste by carbonic acid has been developed, and is validated by experiment. This will be applied to predict the risk of leakage of geosequestered CO2.

Selected Publications

1. "Mechanism for Salt Scaling", J.J. Valenza II and G.W.
Scherer, J. Am. Ceram. Soc. 89 [4] 1161-1179 (2006)
2. "New Methods to Measure Liquid Permeability in Porous
Materials", G.W. Scherer, J. J. Valenza II, and G. Simmons,
Cement Concr. Res. 37 (2007) 386-397
3. "Clay Swelling Mechanism in Clay-Bearing Sandstones", T.
Wangler, G.W. Scherer, Env. Geo. 56 [3-4] (2008) 529-534
4. "Crystallization of sodium sulfate salts in limestone", R.M.
Espinosa-Marzal, G.W. Scherer, Env. Geo. 56 [3-4] (2008)
5. "Molecular Mechanisms Causing Anomalously
High Thermal Expansion of Nanoconfined
Water", S.H. Garofalini, T.S. Mahadevan, S. Xu,
and G.W. Scherer, Chem. Phys. Chem. 9 (2008)
1997 - 2001
6. "Effect of Air Voids on Salt Scaling", Z. Sun and
G.W. Scherer, Cement Concr. Res.
7. "Use of a Dissociative Potential to Simulate
Hydration of Na+ and Cl- ions", M.B. Webb, S. H.
Garofalini, and G. W. Scherer, J. Phys. Chem. B,
113 (2009) 9886-9893

Core Competencies

  • Modeling & measurement of solid-fluid interactions
  • Novel methods for measuring nanodarcy permeability
  • Modeling & measurement of nucleation & growth in pores, crystallization pressure
  • Modeling & measurement of reactive transport
  • Interfacial modification in porous materials to protect against damage

Princeton University Image
Limestone exposed to crystallization of sodium sulfate salt after surface modification treatment. The stone on the left is bare, and the rest have increasing amounts of adsorbed polymer. The salt is present in the samples on the right, but it does far less damage.

Current Research Team Members:
 Melanie Webb (Ph.D. candidate)
 Zhenhua Sun (Ph.D. Candidate)
 Ed Matteo (Ph.D. Candidate)
 Meg McNall (Ph.D. Candidate)
 Sonia Naidu (Ph.D. Candidate)
 Dr. Jie Zhang (Post-doctoral researcher)

Recent Graduates & Post-docs:
 Timothy Wangler (Ph.D. 2009) Postdoctoral
researcher, EMPA, Zurich
 Dr. Rosa Espinosa-Marzal, Research
Scientist, EMPA, Zurich
 Dr. Sulapha Peethamparan, Asst. Prof.
Clarkson University

Current Research Collaborations:
 Salt damage in stone (Dr Eric Doehne, Getty
Conservation Institute
 Modeling leakage of geosequestered CO2
(Prof Jean Prévost, Princeton University &
Dr Bruno Huet, Schlumberger)
 Molecular dynamics modeling of confined
fluid (S.H. Garofalini, Rutgers University)