Homeland security project leads UK to develop ultra fast-drying, spray-on concrete

bestep@herald-leader.comJune 12, 2012 

An ultra fast-drying, spray-on concrete developed at the University of Kentucky could be used to stabilize buildings damaged in terrorist attacks or natural disasters, but also has commercial uses, according to researchers.

Officials demonstrated the product Tuesday at UK's Center for Applied Energy Research, which developed it in partnership with Minova North America, a company headquartered in Georgetown that supplies products to the mining and construction industries.

John Wiseman, who is with the center, used a hose to spray the fast-drying concrete on the joint where a concrete beam — similar to a bumper in front of a parking spot — rested on another in a T shape.

Minutes later, Republican U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Somerset, hung from the top bar to show the patch had dried hard.

"It works," he said.

The concrete, called Tekcrete, is one of several homeland-security products developed or being studied at Kentucky universities under the umbrella of the National Institute for Hometown Security.

Rogers created that agency in 2004 in an effort to bring more federal money to Kentucky to research technology and products aimed at protecting community infrastructure, then try to sell those inventions.

Rogers has since arranged for about $45 million in federal funding to be passed through NIHS for research projects at Kentucky universities, according to his office.

UK has received $25.5 million of that total, said Ewell Balltrip, president and CEO of the institute.

Kentucky researchers have come up with a wide variety of products and technologies, including a way to keep people from using ammonium nitrate fertilizer as an explosive; technology to protect bulk milk supplies coming off the farm from being contaminated; an interoperable communications system for disaster responders; and a way to detect trace amounts of explosives.

Several of the products are on the market, Balltrip said.

For instance, several of the communications systems have been sold, and there are plans for a pilot project using the explosives detector at United Parcel Service in Louisville, he said.

The return on investment on the products — how they've helped protect communities — and the economic impact are still being calculated, but officials think they will contribute to a stronger homeland-security network, Balltrip said.

Researchers in the Kentucky university consortium address needs identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Balltrip said.

The federal government funded research on the fast-drying concrete because of the potential to quickly shore up damaged buildings so that rescuers could get into them and search for survivors.

"This will be a life-saving product," Rogers said.

The project shows how government, academia and industry can work together, officials said.

Tom Robl, at UK's Center for Applied Energy Research, was the principal researcher, but Minova was a partner in the project, and makes the fast-drying concrete under license from UK.

It is being tested in underground coal mines, said Waverly C. McFarland, vice-president of marketing for the company.

It could be used, for instance, to seal the roof of a mine so smaller rocks didn't fall and hit workers, he said.

There haven't been any commercial sales yet because of the need to fine-tune the equipment, McFarland said, but he said the company sees great promise in Tekcrete.

There is no other product that goes on as easily, hardens as quickly and is as strong, reaching a compressive strength of 2,000 pounds per square inch in minutes, McFarland said.

"From a commercial standpoint, we believe that this product has a very bright future," he said.

Paul Benda, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official who attended Tuesday's demonstration, applauded the effort to find a commercial use for a homeland-security product.

With the drive to cut federal spending, that approach will be necessary in developing other homeland-security products, so that they would have an everyday use but be available in a disaster, Benda said.

"We think this is a great public-private partnership because there is a commercial application," he said.

Demonstration of spray-on concrete

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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