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Results of a laboratory study

Superplasticizers in concrete
The new water reducers provide
enormous increases in fluidity where
the cost is justified

ew types of admixtures known as superplasticizers have been introduced into North America within the past several years. These admixtures can enormously increase the workability
of normal portland cement concrete or greatly reduce
its water content. Superplasticizers are more expensive
than conventional water-reducing admixtures. The
dosage requirements vary between 0.5 and 3 percent by
weight of cement, depending on the type of admixture
Normally the superplasticizer is added to the truck
mixer after it arrives at the jobsite and at the last convenient moment before discharge. Within 5 minutes or
less the slump greatly increases and at this time the user
can get the most advantage from the high fluidity of the
concrete. The slump then steadily decreases during the
next hour or more and it is for this reason that the su-

* Numbers in parentheses refer to metric equivalents listed with this article.

perplasticizer is not added until just before use of the

The rate at which the slump decreases depends on the
type and amount of superplasticizer added, as shown in
this article, which reports the results of a laboratory investigation of how superplasticizers affect the workability, strength and durability of high-strength concrete.

Mixes used for the experiments

A total of ten concrete mixes of 2.2 cubic feet(1)* each
were made in 1977 in the laboratory of the Canada Center for Mineral and Energy Technology (CANMET). Immediately after mixing for 6 minutes, the properties of
fresh concrete were determined. The required dosage of
a superplasticizer was then added to the mixer and the
concrete was mixed for an additional 2 minutes. One
batch was a control mix with no superplasticizer. Three
superplasticizers, each added in three different dosages,
were used to produce the other nine mixes.
Normal portland cement, Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Type 10 (similar to ASTM Type I), was used
for the concrete mixes. The graded coarse and fine aggregates consisted of 34-inch(2) maximum-size crushed
limestone and natural sand. An air-entraining agent was
used in all the mixes. The superplasticizers used were of
three types: melamine-, naphthalene- and lignin-based,
designated here as Superplasticizer A, B and C, respect i ve l y. These superplasticizers are mostly made from
salts of organic sulfonates of the type RSO3Na where R is
a complex organic group, frequently of high molecular
weight, SO3 stands for sulfonate, and Na indicates that it
is a sodium salt.
Superplasticizers in Concrete, by V. M. Malhotra, a 23-page report available for $3.00 from The Aberdeen Group, 426 South Westgate Street, Addison, Illinois 60101.

Figure 1. Loss of slump of concretes made with three types of superplasticizers.

A standard mix was used with a water-cement ratio of

0.42, aggregate-cement ratio of 4.76 and a cement content of 639 pounds per cubic yard.(3) The dosage of the
air-entraining agent was kept constant but the dosages
of the various types of superplasticizers were made according to the manufacturers recommendations (0.5,
1.0 and 1.5 percent Superplasticizer B by weight of cement and 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 percent of Superplasticizers A
and C).

Photos courtesy of American Admixtures Corporation

Test results
The measurements of slump loss with time are plotted
in Figure 1. The compressive strength test results are
shown in Figure 2. A complete tabulation of the freezethaw test results is given in the CANMET report on
which this article is based. Tabulations of the properties
of the fresh concretes, the flexural strength results at 14
days and at ages corresponding to the end of freezethaw cycling, a summary of the air void determinations,
and identifications of the superplasticizers used are also
given in the report.

This superplasticized concrete is almost selfleveling and placing takes little time or effort.

This concrete of
112 -inch(12)
slump . . .

Slump increases enormously,

then steadily diminishes
Superplasticized concretes exhibited enormous increases in slumps at the recommended dosage rates.
The slumps reached 8 inches(4) or more within minutes
after adding the superplasticizers; thus low-slump concretes became flowing concretes. Even at these high
slumps there were no signs of any serious segregation.
The concretes maintained these high slumps for the initial 5 to 10 minutes. Then there was a rapid, steady loss
in slump. Concrete containing Superplasticizer A lost
slump more rapidly than concrete containing Superplasticizers B or C. At the dosage rates used (recommended by the manufacturers) superplasticized concretes re ve rted to the original slump of about 2 inches(5)
in less than 90 minutes at the temperature and humidity conditions of the laboratory (see box describing test

. . . reached 8 12inch(13) slump

after a
was added.

procedures). This slump loss, of course, varied with the

dosage rate of the superplasticizers. To take advantage of
these vast increases in slump, concrete must be transported and placed rather quickly. This may pose more
problems for cast-in-place concrete construction than
for concrete placed in precasting plants. Ne ve rt h e l e s s,
superplasticizers offer great opportunities for placing
high-strength concrete in heavily reinforced sections
without encountering the worrisome problems of segregation and honeycombing. This appears to be the principal advantage of the superplasticizers.

Compressive strength

Figure 2. Compressive strengths at 28 days of test

cylinders made from concretes containing Superplasticizers
A, B and C.

At the recommended dosage rates the compressive

strengths of test cylinders cast from superplasticized
concretes were equal to or greater than the strengths of
cylinders cast from the control mix even though no attempt was made in these tests to reduce the water-cement ratio. This was true for cylinders compacted by vibration as well as those not compacted by vibration. This

Durability in freeze-thaw exposures

The temperature, slump, unit weight and air content
of the fresh concretes were determined after the initial
mixing time of 6 minutes. These were determined
once again after the addition of the superplasticizer
and an additional mixing time of 2 minutes. Slump
measurements were taken at frequent intervals to determine how rapidly the slump decreased.
Six 4- by 8-inch(9) cylinders and six 3.5- by 4- by 6inch(10) prisms were cast from each mix immediately after the addition of the superplasticizer (except for the
control mix in which no superplasticizer was used).
Three cylinders from each mix were compacted by using a vibrating table; the remaining three cylinders
were not subjected to any vibration. All the prisms
were cast in brass molds and compacted on the vibrating table. After casting, all molded specimens
were stored under water-saturated burlap in the casting room at 75 3 degrees F(11) and 50 percent relative
humidity for 24 hours. They were then stripped from
the molds and transferred to a standard moist-curing
room for storage until tested.
At 14 days two prisms were removed from the
moist-curing room and tested in flexure. At 28 days
both vibrated and nonvibrated cylinders from each
mix were removed from the moist-curing room,
capped and tested in compression. All testing was
done in accordance with ASTM standards. The remaining two prisms were subjected to rapid cycles of
freezing and thawing in accordance with ASTM C
666-76 using Procedure B, which specifies rapid
freezing in air and thawing in water. Air void determinations were carried out on hardened concrete using
ASTM C 457-71. Sixty cylinders and 60 prisms were
tested in this investigation.

observation is very encouraging because it could eliminate the problem of compacting concrete by vibration in
heavily reinforced sections, saving time and labor.

Flexural strength
In general, at recommended dosage rates, the flexural
strengths of the test prisms cast from superplasticized
concretes showed no significant change from those of
prisms cast from the control mix except for concrete
containing Superplasticizer C. The flexural strength of
prisms made with this superplasticizer dropped by
about 10 percent. This decrease in strength is unexplained.

Elastic properties of superplasticized concrete

No tests were performed in this study to determine
the elastic properties of the superplasticized concretes
but research is currently underway at CANMET to obtain
this information. Data from limited studies reported by
others are inconclusive as to the effect of superplasticizers on Youngs modulus of elasticity, shrinkage and creep
of concrete.

Durability of concrete prisms exposed to repeated cycles of freezing and thawing was determined by measuring weight, length, resonant frequency and pulse velocity of test prisms before and after they were exposed to
f re eze-thaw cycling. These measurements were compared with corresponding values from reference prisms.
In general, there were no significant changes in the test
specimens at the end of about 700 cycles of freezing and
thawing. After 700 cycles the tests were discontinued.
Test data indicated that all prisms performed equally
well. The flexural strengths of the prisms remained close
to the strengths measured before cycling. Complete data are given in the CANMET report.
It should be pointed out that freeze-thaw tests were
performed using ASTM C 666-76 and employing Procedure B, Rapid freezing in air and thawing in water.
ASTM C 494-71, Chemical Admixtures, specifies the
use of Procedure A, Rapid freezing and thawing in water, for the evaluation of concrete incorporating chemical admixtures. Notwithstanding that requirement, it is
believed that the reported freeze-thaw data are valid because the freeze-thaw test is a comparative test, the
comparison being carried out with the specimens cast
from the control mix. (For the investigation re p o rt e d
here, test prisms were also cast from another control mix
made with non-air-entrained concrete. These non-airentrained prisms had completely disintegrated at less
than 100 freeze-thaw cycles.)

Air void measurements

The microscopic determination of air void content,
and parameters of the air void system in hardened conc re t e, were obtained using ASTM C 457-71. It is well
known that for satisfactory durability the cement paste
should be protected with air bubbles. The spacing factor is an index related to the maximum distance between
any point in the cement paste and the periphery of an air
void. Adequate protection requires that the spacing factor should not exceed 0.006 to 0.008 inch.(6) In the superplasticized concretes under investigation the bubble
spacing factor varies between 0.006 and 0.010.(7) In spite
of the fact that the bubble spacing in some superplasticized concretes is slightly higher than the 0.008-inch(8)
limit, the durability of concrete test specimens was not
impaired. This is of considerable significance and investigations are needed to explain this phenomenon.

Following are the main characteristics of superplasticized concretes:
Superplasticized concretes show enormous increases
in slump without any significant segregation.
Superplasticized, high-strength concretes can be
placed in heavily reinforced and inaccessible areas.

The loss of slump with time is one of the serious limitations of these new water reducers. Howe ve r, by judicious selection of the dosage rate and by adding superplasticizers to concrete at a jobsite this problem can
be minimized or eliminated.
At the manufacturers recommended superplasticizer
dosages, the 28-day compressive strengths are equal
to or greater than the corresponding strengths of the
reference mix, whether or not compacted by vibration.
This suggests that high-strength superplasticized concretes can be placed in forms without mechanical
Data on the elastic properties of superplasticized concretes are limited and inconclusive.
The freeze-thaw durability of test specimens cast from
superplasticized concretes compares favorably with
those cast from the control mix regardless of the bubble spacing factor in hardened concrete.
Although there were some differences in the effects of
the three superplasticizers on compressive strength,
flexural strengths and slump loss, the data are too limited to draw any conclusions about the relative performance of the three superplasticizers tested.

These superplasticizers may or may not perform as reported in concretes made with water-cement ratios
other than the 0.42 used in these tests or with types of
cement other than CSA Type 10 or ASTM Type I.
Because superplasticizers are considerably more expensive than ordinary water reducers they are not economical for use in everyday concrete. They are ideal for
use in situations that demand flowing concretes at very
low water-cement ratios.

Metric equivalents
(1) 0.062 cubic meters

(7) 0.15 and 0.25 millimeter

(2) 19-millimeter

(8) 0.20 millimeter

(3) 379 kilograms

(9) 102- by 203-millimeter

per cubic meter

(10) 89- by 102- by 406-millimeter

(4) 206 millimeters

(11) 24 _ 1.3 degrees C

(5) 50 millimeters

(12) 38-millimeter

(6) 0.15 to 0.20 millimeter

(13) 216-millimeter

Copyright 1978, The Aberdeen Group
All rights reserved