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How microsilica

improves concrete
Finer than fly ash, this pozzolan increases strength
and density, reduces concrete permeability
vors electric arc furnaces and much of the worlds silicon
alloy is processeduse of microsilica goes back at least
15 years.

HOW MICROSILICA WORKS IN CONCRETE


Microsilica in concrete contributes to strength and
durability two ways:
As a pozzolan, microsilica provides a more uniform
distribution and a greater volume of hyd ra t i o n
products.
As a filler, microsilica decreases the average size of
pores in the cement paste.
Since microsilica particles are only about 11 00 the size of
cement grains, the material may be hard to batch and ship.
These handling problems may be overcome by mixing
microsilica with water (and sometimes other admixtures) in
a slurry which replaces part of the normal concrete mixing
water. Densification and pelletization have also been tried
to simplify the mixing and handling.

icrosilica is a mineral admixture composed


of very fine solid glassy spheres of silicon
dioxide (SiO2). Most microsilica particles
are less than 1 micron (0.00004 inch) in diameter, generally 50 to 100 times finer than average cement or fly ash particles.
Frequently called condensed silica fume, microsilica
is a by-product of the industrial manufacture of ferrosilicon and metallic silicon in high-temperature electric
arc furnaces. The ferrosilicon or silicon product is drawn
off as a liquid from the bottom of the furnace. Vapor rising from the 2000-degree-C furnace bed is oxidized, and
as it cools condenses into particles which are trapped in
huge cloth bags. Processing the condensed fume to
remove impurities and control particle size yields
microsilica.
U.S. production of microsilica is estimated to be
about 300,000 tons per year, with world production near
1.1 million tons. Only recently has microsilica been used
in the United States as an admixture in concrete. But in
Scandinaviawhere abundant hydroelectric power fa-

Microsilicas effectiveness as a pozzolan and a filler


depends largely on its composition and particle size
which in turn depend on the design of the furnace and
the composition of the raw materials with which the furnace is charged. At present there are no U.S. standard
specifications for the material or its applications.
Dosages of microsilica used in concrete have typically
been in the range of 5 to 20 percent by weight of cement,
but percentages as high as 40 have been reported.
Used as an admixture, microsilica can improve the
p ro p e rties of both fresh and hardened concrete. Used
as a partial replacement for cement, microsilica can
substitute for energy-consuming cement without sacrifice of quality.

MICROSILICA = SILICA FUME


The very fine particles of amorphous silica collected in dust removal systems during manufacture of silicon and ferrosilicon have been given at least fifteen
different names, including silica dust, silica flour, and
silica fume. Until recently, silica fume was probably
the most widely used; CONCRETE CONSTRUCTION
referred to the material as silica fume in an earlier article (Reference 3), but we have decided to adopt microsilica as the preferred generic term, because fume
suggests a vapor, smoke or gas. And what we use in
concrete is not any one of these, but rather the fine
solid particles condensed from a vapor.

Current economic considerations in most areas of


North America favor use of microsilica as an admixture
to provide special properties, rather than as a cement replacement. A growing body of test results shows that
addition of microsilica can provide such special properties as very high strength, high density and impermeability, high electrical resistivity, and superior abrasion
resistance.

Air entrainment improves the resistance of microsilica concrete in the same way it does ordinary concrete.
Howe ve r, microsilica concrete even with relatively low
cement content can reportedly be compounded to be
frost resistant without air-entraining agents.

Pozzolanic action
Addition of microsilica to a concrete mix alters the cement paste structure. The resulting paste contains more
of the strong calcium-silicate hydrates and less of the
weak and easily soluble calcium hydroxides than do ordinary cement pastes. Because the microsilica particles
are so smalltheir average diameter is about 1100 that of
cement particlesthey disperse among and separate
the cement particles. The resulting fine, uniform matrix
can give markedly higher compressive, flexural, and
bond strength. Compressive strengths as high as 15,000
psi with ordinary aggregates and 30,000 psi or more with
special aggregates have been reported.

Comparison of compressive strengths of a proprietary


microsilica concrete and a low-slump dense concrete
without microsilica, both compounded for bridge deck
overlays. Early strength of the microsilica concrete is lower.
But after two days, values are about equal. After 28 days,
microsilica concrete is about 40 percent stronger and after
56 days, 50 percent stronger (from Reference 2).

Protection of reinforcement

Relationship between strength and water-cement ratio for


two microsilica concretes and a reference concrete. Curves
are similar in shpae, but microsilica concretes reach
significantly higher levels, up to nearly 14,000 psi (from
Reference 1).

Freeze-thaw durability
The small microsilica particles are very good at infiltrating and plugging capillary pores in concretemaking pores smaller and fewer and concrete more dense.
This gives the concrete good resistance to freezing and
thawing.

Concretes ability to protect embedded steel against


corrosion depends mainly on the alkalinity of the pore
water. As long as the water is highly alkaline, a passive
oxide film on the steel protects it.
If the passivity is destroyed by aggressive ions, either
carbonates or chloride ions, the steel will corrode at
a rate depending on the concretes electrical resistivity
and rate of oxygen transport through water- s a t u ra t e d
concrete.
Fortunately, microsilicathanks to its pore-filling capabilitiesreduces (in some if not all cases) the rate of
carbonation, decreases permeability to chloride ions,
imparts high electrical resistivity, and has little effect on
oxygen transport (Reference 1, page 719). Therefore, microsilica concrete can be expected to be strongly protective of reinforcement and embedments.

Sulfate resistance, reduced aggregate reactivity


Probably because it has a finer pore structure and less
calcium hydroxide, microsilica concrete has improved

resistance to sulfate attack (Reference 1, page 698). In


addition, microsilica binds the potassium and sodium
oxide alkalies present in cement, thus reducing detrimental effects with alkali-reactive aggregates.

Aids strength gain of fly ash concretes


Preliminary indications suggest that microsilica may
be useful in controlling heat generation in mass concrete. It has also been found useful in combination with
fly ash. Early-age strength development of concrete in
which fly ash replaces cement tends to be slow because
fly ash is relatively inert during this period of hydration.
Adding microsilica, which is more reactive in early hydration, can speed the strength development.

MIXING AND PLACING CONSIDERATIONS


Handling the microsilica
Because of its extreme fineness, microsilica presents
handling problems. A cement tanker that could ordinarily haul 35 metric tons of cement accommodates only 7 to 9 tons of dry microsilica and requires 20 to 50 percent more time for discharging. Some producers mix
microsilica with water on a pound-for-pound basis to
form a slurry that is transportable in tank trailers designed to handle liquids. The water of the slurry replaces
part of that ordinarily added to the mix.
One supplier prepares a slurry which, used at the rate
of 1 gallon per 100 pounds of cement, will provide about
5 percent microsilica by weight of cement. In 1984, that
supplier was quoting a price of $1.70 per gallon at a plant
in West Virginia. In Canada, patented methods have
been used to densify the microsilica for shipment to
ready mix producers. Some concrete producers also use
the loose microsilica just as it is collected.

little bleeding. This may cause problems for floors or


slabs cast in hot, windy weather because there is no water film at the surface to compensate for evaporation.
Plastic shrinkage cracking can readily develop unless
precautions are taken. It is important to finish the concrete promptly and apply a curing compound or cover
immediately. With lean concrete mixes or mixes containing fly ash replacement of cement, different effects
have been reported. For example, Reference 4 re p o rt s
that mixes with less than 380 pounds of cement per cubic yard plus 10 percent microsilica are both more cohesive and more plastic so no extra water is needed to
maintain slump.

Concrete color effects


Freshly mixed concrete containing microsilica can be
almost black, dark gray, or practically unchanged, depending on the dosage of microsilica and its carbon content. The more carbon and iron in the admixture, the
darker the resulting concrete. Hardened concretes are
not much darker than normal concretes when dry.
Sometimes there is a faint bluish tinge, but when the microsilica concrete is wet, it looks darker than normal.

Silicosis danger doubted


Microsilica is essentially noncrystalline. Cu r re n t l y
available data indicate it has no tendency to cause silicosis, the lung disease associated with inhalation of
crystalline SiO2. Howe ve r, because of possible cumulative long-term effects, Norwegian standards restrict dust
in the air of the workplace to the same level as that of
other dusts such as natural diatomaceous earth, mica,
and soapstone.

RECENT USES OF MICROSILICA


CONCRETE IN THE U.S.

Water requirements of the mix

Bridge deck overlay

When no water reducing agent is used, the addition


of microsilica to a concrete mix calls for more water to
maintain a given slump. Water content can be held the
same by using a water reducer or superplasticizer along
with the microsilica. Water reducing agents appear to
have a greater effect on microsilica concrete than on
normal concrete. Thus water demand for a given microsilica concrete can be controlled to be either greater
or smaller than for the reference concrete.

Ohio transportation engineers are testing their theory


that microsilica concrete is suitable for bridge deck overlay work. With the same construction equipment used to
place latex-modified concrete, they installed an experimental section late in 1984 on a bridge on State Route
511, north of Ashland, Ohio. The purpose is to compare
placeability, cost, resistance to deicing salt, and other aspects of durability of the microsilica mix with latex modified concrete.
The admixture used for the microsilica concrete was
a slurry containing both microsilica and a water-reducing agent. Microsilica-cement ratio was 0.15 by weight.
Water-cement ratio was 0.4 not including the microsilica with the cement. Design compressive strength was
7500 psi. Slump was 6 to 8 inches, and there was no air
entrainment.
Mobile batcher-mixers were used to mix on site and
place 1.5-inch overlays of microsilica concrete on the
southbound lane and latex-modified concrete on the
northbound lane. The microsilica concrete was mixed

Placing and finishing, curing


The gel that forms during the first minutes of mixing
microsilica concrete takes up water and stiffens the mixture, necessitating adjustment of the timing of charging
and placing. Scandinavian researchers (Reference 1)
have concluded that microsilica concretes often require
1 to 2 inches more slump than conventional concrete for
equal workability. When cement content and microsilica dosage are relatively high, the mixture is so cohesive
that there is virtually no segregation of aggregates and

for only 60 seconds, then placed and promptly finished.


Wet burlap was used for curing.
One crew handled both concretes and found them
equally easy to place and finish. Careful observation
showed no shrinkage cracking.
The job required about 16 cubic yards of each of the
two types of concrete. Ohio officials estimate the microsilica concrete cost about $50 per cubic yard less than
the latex-modified concrete.

Repair of a dam stilling basin


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specified microsilica concrete for repair of the stilling basin of the Kinzua
Dam in northern Pennsylvania. The job required 2000
cubic yards of microsilica concrete, placed during a 7week period in late 1983 and early 1984. The concrete
was trucked 8 miles to the dam, and pumped into place
through a 100-foot boom. Measured compressive
strength exceeded the specified values of 10,000 psi at 7
days and 12,500 psi at 28 days.
The 204- by 108-foot basin, lined with 5-foot thick
slabs, had been placed in operation in 1966. By 1973,
debris had eroded the basins surface and caused pits as
deep as 3 feet. Slabs were then repaired with steel-fiberreinforced concrete. Nine years later, divers found that
not only had the 1-foot overlay of steel-fiber-reinforced
concrete been worn away in places but in some areas as
much as 2 feet of the underlying original slab had been
worn away also.
Abrasion-erosion tests in the laboratory suggested to
the Corps of Engineers that microsilica concrete would
be a suitable repair material, but full scale field tests
were ordered to be sure the repair concrete could be
placed and finished satisfactorily. Slumps as high as even
10 inches were used to facilitate placing and finishing. A
membrane curing compound was applied immediately
after final finishing.

tory at Fa i rc h a n c e, Pennsylvania in the spring of


1983. Conventional embedded mesh reinforcement was
not used.
The wet mix was delivered straight from mixer trucks
to a remote-controlled truck-mounted shotcreting rig,
capable of reaching a height of 63 feet. Only two workers were neededone to operate the control panel and
one to monitor the concrete mix. Rebound loss was less
than 5 percent. Specified 28-day strength of the
shotcrete was 9000 psi in compression and 1500 psi
in flexure.

References
1. Fly Ash, Silica Fume, Slag & Other Mineral Products in
Concrete, edited by V. M. Malhotra; ACI Publication SP79,1983, available from American Concrete Institute, Box
19150, Detroit, Michigan 48219 at $90 ($70 to ACI members). Pertinent information appears in Volume I, pages 146, 221-233, 255-265, 539-557; and in Volume II, pages
625-829, 847-865, 923-942, and 1165-1176.
2. D. W. Christiansen Jr., E. V. Sorensen, and F. F. Radjy,
Rockbond: A New Microsilica Concrete Bridge Deck Overlay Material, International Bridge Conference and Exhibition, June 1984, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
3. V. M. Malhotra and G. G. Carette, Silica FumeA Pozzolan of New Interest for Use in Some Concrete, CONCRETE CONSTRUCTION, May 1982, pp. 443-446.
4. Condensed Silica Fume, edited by Pierre-Claude Aitcin,
52 pages, 1983. Available from the editor, University of
Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada J1K 2R1 at $20
(Canadian) plus $5 for postage and handling.

Stabilization of rock faces


Microsilica concrete reinforced with steel fibers was
satisfactorily shotcreted onto rock faces above two entrances to the U.S. Bureau of Mines Lake Lynn Labora-

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Copyright 1985, The Aberdeen Group
All rights reserved