Concrete is one of the world’s most popular building materials, with over 20 billion tons produced annually around the world. The production of concrete alone accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the world’s overall atmospheric CO2, so cutting down on its production could have major environmental benefits. Civil engineers at MIT have finally discovered what causes “creep,” the deformation of concrete that occurs over time. This discovery is the first step toward prolonging the life of concrete by slowing the rate at which creep occurs.

The MIT team discovered that creep is caused by tiny nano-scale rearrangements of particles. The discovery means that the engineers can use this new understanding of concrete creep to create incredibly long-lasting buildings and infrastructure objects. Until now, concrete structures have had to be pretty thick in order to remain stable over the years. Thin concrete succumbs to creep quickly, so lightweight concrete buildings have always been impossible.

In the future, concrete structures could be lightweight and thin while using far less material than current generations. And because they would be far stronger and longer-lasting than our current concrete structures, they will require fewer repairs and will last longer than any other concrete buildings. In theory, this nano approach to concrete engineering could result in concrete that lasts for thousands of years.