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Plasticizers increase the workability of plastic or “fresh” concrete, allowing it be placed more easily, with less consolidating effort. A typical plasticizer is lignosulfonate. Plasticizers can be used to reduce the water content of a concrete while maintaining workability and are sometimes called water-reducers due to this use. Such treatment improves its strength and durability characteristics. Superplasticizers (also called high-range water-reducers) are a class of plasticizers that have fewer deleterious effects and can be used to increase workability more than is practical with traditional plasticizers. Compounds used as superplasticizers include sulfonated naphthalene formaldehyde condensate, sulfonated melamine formaldehyde condensate, acetone formaldehyde condensate and polycarboxylate ethers.
Plasticizers or water reducers, and superplasticizer or high range water reducers, are chemical admixtures that can be added to concrete mixtures to improve workability. Unless the mix is “starved” of water, the strength of concrete is inversely proportional to the amount of water added or water-cement (w/c) ratio. In order to produce stronger concrete, less water is added (without “starving” the mix), which makes the concrete mixture less workable and difficult to mix, necessitating the use of plasticizers, water reducers, superplasticizers or dispersants.
Plasticizers are also often used when pozzolanic ash is added to concrete to improve strength. This method of mix proportioning is especially popular when producing high-strength concrete and fiber-reinforced concrete.
Adding 1-2% plasticizer per unit weight of cement is usually sufficient. Adding an excessive amount of plasticizer will result in excessive segregation of concrete and is not advisable. Depending on the particular chemical used, use of too much plasticizer may result in a retarding effect.
Plasticizers are commonly manufactured from pop lignosulfonates, a by-product from the paper industry. Superplasticizers have generally been manufactured from sulfonated naphthalene condensate or sulfonated melamine formaldehyde, although newer products based on polycarboxylic ethers are now available. Traditional lignosulfonate-based plasticisers, naphthalene and melamine sulfonate-based superplasticisers disperse the flocculated cement particles through a mechanism of electrostatic repulsion (see colloid). In normal plasticisers, the active substances are adsorbed on to the cement particles, giving them a negative charge, which leads to repulsion between particles. Lignin, naphthalene and melamine sulfonate superplasticisers are organic polymers. The long molecules wrap themselves around the cement particles, giving them a highly negative charge so that they repel each other.
Polycarboxylate ether superplasticizer (PCE) or just polycarboxylate (PC), work differently from sulfonate-based superplasticizers, giving cement dispersion by steric stabilisation, instead of electrostatic repulsion. This form of dispersion is more powerful in its effect and gives improved workability retention to the cementitious mix.
In ancient times, the Romans used animal fat, milk and blood to improve workability of concrete mixes.
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