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'Popcorn' part of a safer concrete


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Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Winter 2013

That annoying foam “popcorn” that’s a staple of the shipping business could save lives.

Ashraf Ghaly, professor of engineer­ing, is using it in a new product he calls Popcrete.

Ghaly has been experimenting with concrete mixes that use “popcorn” as part of the aggregate. His goal is a concrete that “hugs” (absorbs energy from) an impacting object. The material could be used for barriers at highway exit ramps, for example, as a way to safely absorb the energy of a crash, Ghaly says.

The first step in the project was getting the material. Ghaly put out a campus-wide email and quickly heard from dozens of recycling-minded colleagues. Next, he and his student researcher, Keefe Askin ’13, formed the blocks in large plastic storage bins.

Then came the testing, which is where Ghaly’s friends in the College’s Facilities department came in.

On a warm August afternoon, an equipment operator positioned a tractor and a one-ton lawn roller at the top of a hill above Alexander Field. His target: a cooler-sized chunk of Ghaly’s Popcrete.

With a small group watching, Ghaly signaled the release of the roller. It smashed the block with a satisfying thud, sending a spray of concrete dust in the air before bouncing to a stop.

“I get some of my best ideas from watching Tom and Jerry cartoons,” Ghaly quipped.