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Q: What causes early stiffening and what is the difference between false set and flash set?

A: Early stiffening is a premature loss of workability or plasticity of cement paste, mortar, or concrete. This includes both false and flash set. False set (plaster set) is evidenced by a significant loss of plasticity without the evolution of much heat shortly after mixing. From a placing and handling standpoint, false-set tendencies in cement will cause no difficulty if the concrete is simply mixed for a longer period of time or remixed without additional water before being transported or placed. False set occurs when too much gypsum dehydrates in the cement mill forming too much plaster (some plaster in the cement is desirable). This leads to stiffening due to the rapid reformation of secondary gypsum with interlocking needle-like crystals. Additional mixing without added water breaks up these crystals to restore workability. Ettringite precipitation can also contribute to false set. Flash set (quick set) is evidenced by a rapid and early loss of workability in paste, mortar, or concrete. It is usually accompanied by the evolution of considerable heat resulting primarily from the rapid reaction of aluminates. If the proper amount or form of calcium sulfate is not available to control the calcium aluminate hydration, rapid stiffening takes place. Flash set cannot be dispelled, nor can the plasticity be regained by further mixing without the addition of water. Proper stiffening results from the careful balance of the sulfate and aluminate compounds, as well as the temperature and fineness of the materials (which control the chemical reaction rates). A balance among the ions in plastic concrete is necessary to prevent early stiffening. The tendency for early stiffening may therefore be attributed not only to individual cementitious materials, but also to interactions between the various cementitious materials and chemical admixtures. For example, some Class C fly ashes contain significant amounts of aluminate phases and may disturb the balance because the cement sulfates may not be sufficient to account for them, leading to early stiffening. Some chemical admixtures, particularly Type A water reducers, may also disturb the ion balance, with the same result. Cements are tested for early stiffening using ASTM C451 (paste method) (AASHTO T 186), and ASTM C359 (mortar method) (AASHTO T 185), which use the penetration techniques of the Vicat apparatus. However, these tests do not address all of the mixing, placing, temperature, and field conditions that can cause early stiffening. To detect early stiffening caused by interactions Conduction Calorimeter between concrete ingredients the use of conduction calorimetry has been suggested (FHWA 2006).