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Development of lightweight
aggregate concrete
Strength joined with durability in the evolution of lightweight aggregates


Figure 1. Comparison of concrete

oncrete, so commonly ac- that were not only light in weight weights. Natural lightweight

C cepted in our buildings,

b ri d g e s, highways and an
infinite variety of other
s t ru c t u re s, is taken for granted as
massive and weighty. Not necessar-
but also provided the strength
missing from those early mixes. Be-
cause of these developments we
have excellent lightweight aggre-
gate concrete today that provides
aggregates were durable enough in
early concrete, but when combined
with portland cement in the early
1800s, they could not provide the
necessary strength. About 100 years
later, a way to make strong,
ily so! A broad spectrum of light- both durability and structural in- lightweight aggregate was discovered
weight concretes is being used to- tegrity. by heating shale, clay and slate until
day. This article focuses on they expanded.
concretes made with two types of Early Roman lightweight
lightweight aggregates (see Figure concrete
aggregates and extremely light
1). Initially there were natural light- Volcanic aggregates of basalt, sco- pumice and tuff made possible the
weight aggregates that, though ria, pumice and tuff were used in construction of structures which
durable enough, had little relative concrete by Roman engineers and were quite sophisticated. A famous
strength. Much later, aggregates designers. Their awareness of the example of this expertise is the Pan-
processed by man were developed differences between heavy basaltic theon in Rome.
A huge temple begun in 27 B.C., ment, they have neve rt h e l e s s strong as those made with heavy
the Pantheon had the largest dome proved amazingly durable. rock and sand aggregates. Obvious-
ever constructed until modern ly, another innovation would be re-
times; it measured about 142 feet in Portland cement: quired to make lightweight concrete
diameter and rose 71 feet above its A temporary setback for practical once again.
lightweight aggregates
base. Although the exact method of
construction has never been deter- In 1824, the English bri c k l a ye r Manufactured lightweight
mined, two factors are known to Joseph Aspdin concocted and aggregates bring new strength
have contributed to its success: the patented a new cement that con- Stephen J. Ha yd e, a contractor
excellent quality of mortar used in tained pulve ri zed raw limestone and brickmaker of Kansas City, Mis-
the concrete and the careful selec- and pulve ri zed impure siliceous souri found an old problem in brick-
tion and grading of aggregate. materials in varying percentages. making to be the answer to low
Heavy basalt was used in founda- The cement was called portland ce- strength lightweight aggregate. For
tions and lower walls. In upper ment because of its similarity in col- c e n t u ri e s, brickmakers had prob-
walls, builders mixed brick and tuff oration, when hardened, to a popu- lems with some brick bloating ab-
into the concrete, and toward the lar building stone quarried on the normally during the burning
center of the vault they used the Isle of Portland. Although Aspdin’s process because the shale expanded
under high heat. Based on his con-
siderable construction experience,
Hayde thought this unusable, bloat-
ed lightweight material might make
a good lightweight aggregate for
concrete. It was hard like glass and
relatively impermeable. The air
voids that were created in the
aggregate when it was heated at
high temperatures were not inter-
Hayde was granted a patent for
his method of producing light-
weight aggregate in 1918. The
process involved use of a rotary kiln,
a long, nearly horizontal cylinder
lined with refractory material. Shale,
Figure 2. The Pantheon of Rome, 27 B.C.—A.D. 124. Both vault and walls are of clay or slate placed in the upper end
concrete, faced with brick and stone. This temple is ultimate proof of the Roman of the rotating kiln was heated—and
engineers’ understanding and achievement in the handling of early concrete. thus expanded—as it slowly moved
(Adapted from an engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1720-78.) down to the lower end of the kiln.
The expanded shale, clay or slate
that was produced was lightweight,
lightest of pumice (see Figure 2). material was far from equal to the relatively impermeable and hard.
As the empire grew through mili- quality and strength of today’s port-
tary conquest and colonization, Ro- land cement, it was far superior to World War I ships open
man engineering, building design, other cements used then. the door for use of lightweight
and construction techniques spread Before Aspdin’s time, cements aggregate concrete
from the Middle East to other lands were so weak that both heavy and As with so many new materials,
surrounding the Me d i t e r ra n e a n , lightweight aggregate concretes per- the market was not yet ready for this
across Europe and into Britain. Re- formed about the same. The discov- expanded aggregate. Howe ve r, the
mains of magnificent temples, ery of portland cement changed entry of the United States into World
b ri d g e s, aqueducts, amphitheaters this. Natural lightweight aggregates War I in 1917 and the shortage of
and roads still dot the landscape in were soft and tended to crush and high-grade plate steel for building
these areas. Many of these struc- shear under compression, but this ships led to one of its first uses.
tures contained natural aggregate did not matter when the cement Small ships, barges and a tanker had
lightweight concrete, but it is not so that was used provided less strength already been designed and built
evident because most of them are than the aggregate. When the new, using conventional concrete, but
faced with masonry. Although struc- stronger portland cement was used, marine engineers thought that
turally weak by modern standards, concretes made with natural light- lightweight concrete might work
because of the quality of the ce- weight aggregate were no longer as even better.
One of these engineers, R. J. Wig, owners towed her out into the bay inch beneath the surface of the hull
determined that a large vessel and sank her in 1923. was found to be dry with no discol-
would not be economically feasible oration from absorbed water. An ex-
unless the concrete had a compres- Durability verified after amination of the interior of the hull
sive strength of approximately 500 three decades in salt water showed no visible cracks; it was
psi. Also the weight could not ex- T h i rt y-four years later the Ex- deemed to be in excellent condi-
ceed 110 pounds per cubic foot. Wig panded Shale, Clay & Slate Institute tion. A comparison of the properties
called on the National Bureau of had the Selma’s hull inspected by of the concrete in 1953 with what
Standards and together they began Engineers Testing Laboratory, Inc. was known about it when it was
an investigation in the summer of of Houston, Texas. The concrete 1⁄4 freshly placed showed beyond
1918. A method of expanding slate, doubt that the lightweight expand-
clay and shale in stationary down- ed shale concrete had successfully
draft brick kilns was developed. The withstood the action of sea water
first aggregate of this type was pro- without damage. The re i n f o rc i n g
duced on a commercial scale at a steel, placed only 5⁄8 inch below the
brick plant near Birmingham, Al- surface in many places, was also ad-
abama. Enough aggregate was pro- equately protected.
duced to supply concrete for a rela-
tively small 3000-ton ship, Atlantis, Early buildings reduce loads
launched in December 1918. with structural lightweight
The first commercial plant to pro-
Building the Selma duce Ha yd e’s expanded shale aggre-
At the same time, Ha yd e’s rotary gate began functioning in Kansas
kiln method was producing more City, Missouri in 1920. Architects
uniform aggregate. Wig thought this and engineers of the day were skep-
uniform aggregate would provide tical of his new material and were
the consistent mixes required for unwilling to risk their reputations,
the thin-wall construction of large so the new company struggled
concrete vessels, so Hayde agreed to along until 1922. Then a bit of unex-
give free use of his patents to the pected good fortune occurred. A
U.S. shipbuilding program. new gymnasium wing was to be
The first large vessel to be con- added to the Westport High School
structed of structural lightweight in Kansas City, but the soil on the
was the tanker Selma. She weighed site had poor load bearing charac-
7500 tons, had a length of 434 feet, a teristics. Lightweight concrete was
beam of 54 feet, and a draft with full ideal to avoid the difficult and heavy
cargo of 26 feet; full cargo displace- foundation work required with nor-
ment was 13,000 tons, and she mal concrete. The architect took a
could do 101⁄2 knots. The lightweight chance, and his judgment proved
concrete hull was 5 inches thick on correct. Although the expanded
the bottom and 4 inches on the shale aggregate cost $6.00 a cubic
sides. Her construction re q u i re d yard versus $2.50 a cubic yard for
2660 cubic yards of concrete and sand and gravel, this higher price
about 1165 pounds of smooth rein- was more than compensated for by
forcing bars for each cubic yard— the reduction in dead weight.
close to 1550 tons of steel in all. Another existing building, the
The Selma was launched in June Southwestern Bell Telephone office
1919 but by this time World War I building in Kansas City had origi-
was over, so she went into service nally been built as a 14-story struc-
transporting crude oil from Tampi- ture. In 1928, the company wished
Figure 3. Southwestern Bell Telephone
co, Mexico to Texas Gulf Coast refin- Company, Kansas City, Missouri. to add as many more floors as the
ery ports. After three years of con- Lightweight addition in 1928-29. This foundation would support. Studies
tinuous service the Selma ran diagram shows the difference indicated that only eight floors
aground at Tampico and a large between the extra eight floors could safely be added using conven-
crack was put in her hull near the proposed in normal weight concrete, tional aggregate concrete but four-
bow. The ship was towed into Galve- versus the actual addition of fourteen teen floors could be added if struc-
ston, but because no one could floors made possible by the use of tural lightweight concrete were used
guarantee a permanent repair, the lightweight expanded shale concrete. instead (see Figure 3). This would
double the height of the building Spurred by the expiration of tractors true structural lightweight
and reduce total dead load of the Ha yd e’s patents and the demand aggregate concrete has a broad
addition by six million pounds. built up during the war, aggregate range of applications: frames and
The addition was built, and the producers started building more floors for tall buildings; thin-shell
building remains in service today, plants. By 1955 there were 33 pro- structures including hyperbolic pa-
demonstrating durability as well as ducing plants in the United States raboloid roofs; long span bridges,
practicality. and Canada. During the depression roofs and decks; and unusual sculp-
This success was followed in 1929 there had been only seven licensed tural designs. Economies in rein-
by the first structural lightweight operations in the United States and forcing steel and foundations that
h i g h - ri s e, the 28-story Park Plaza one in Canada. come from overall weight reduc-
Hotel in St. Louis. Both frame and tions are some of the more com-
floor systems were designed to Structural lightweight today pelling reasons for using this type of
take full advantage of lightweight The Romans established durabili- concrete.
concrete. ty of lightweight concrete by using
natural aggregates from volcanic
The post-World War 11 deposits near at hand. After the de-
explosion velopment of portland cement in
Hayde’s patents did not expire un- the early 1800s, though, it took the Acknowledgment
til just after World War II in 1946. discovery and development of man- Thanks to the Expanded Shale, Clay &
During the thirties the growth of the ufactured lightweight aggregates in Slate Institute for providing much of
the information on which this article is
expanded shale industry had been the early 1900s to bring stru c t u ra l based.
limited by several factors: venture lightweight concrete to full maturity.
capital was mighty scarce during Processed aggregates today include:
the depression years, there was an rotary kiln expanded shales, clays
early lack of technical knowledge, and slates; sintered shales, clays and
and expanded shale, clay and slate slates; cinders; pelletized or extrud- PUBLICATION#C850519
aggregates could only be produced ed fly ash; and expanded slag. Copyright © 1985, The Aberdeen Group
by Hayde or his assigns. For architects, engineers and con- All rights reserved