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Concrete has been a vital structural material since the Industrial Revolution, but it has some inherent limitations. No matter how much it is reinforced with fibers or steel, it still doesn’t bend very well. Victor Li and his colleagues at the University of Michigan are working to make concrete that is both strong and relatively flexible. Concrete will never be plastic—that wouldn’t work well structurally. But it can resist damage from weather, earthquakes and the like. Microcracks in concrete are inevitable, and that’s okay—it’s large cracks that cause failure. The material that Li is working on resists damage with small, distributed flaws that never create big fractures. This format dissipates crack energy and creates resiliency. Li’s material has been tested in road-bed expansion joints and a high-rise building in Japan.

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