Drying-induced atomic structural rearrangements in sodium-based calcium-alumino-silicate-hydrate gel and the mitigating effects of ZrO2 nanoparticles

Kengran Yang, V. Ongun Özçelik, Nishant Garg, Kai Gong, Claire E. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Conventional drying of colloidal materials and gels (including cement) can lead to detrimental effects due to the buildup of internal stresses as water evaporates from the nano/microscopic pores. However, for these gel materials the underlying nanoscopic alterations that are, in part, responsible for macroscopically-measured strain values (especially at low relative humidity) remain a topic of open debate in the literature. In this study, sodium-based calcium-alumino-silicate-hydrate (C-(N)-A-S-H) gel, the major binding phase of silicate-activated blast furnace slag (one type of low-CO2 cement), is investigated from a drying perspective, since it is known to suffer extensively from drying-induced microcracking. By employing in situ synchrotron X-ray total scattering measurements and pair distribution function (PDF) analysis we show that the significant contributing factor to the strain development in this material at extremely low relative humidity (0%) is the local atomic structural rearrangement of the C-(N)-A-S-H gel, including collapse of interlayer spacing and slight disintegration of the gel. Moreover, analysis of the medium range (1.0-2.2 nm) ordering in the PDF data reveals that the PDF-derived strain values are in much closer agreement (same order of magnitude) with the macroscopically measured strain data, compared to previous results based on reciprocal space X-ray diffraction data. From a mitigation standpoint, we show that small amounts of ZrO2 nanoparticles are able to actively reinforce the structure of silicate-activated slag during drying, preventing atomic level strains from developing. Mechanistically, these nanoparticles induce growth of a silica-rich gel during drying, which, via density functional theory calculations, we show is attributed to the high surface reactivity of tetragonal ZrO2.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8593-8606
Number of pages14
JournalPhysical Chemistry Chemical Physics
Issue number13
StatePublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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