Supplementary Cementitious Materials

A look at the leading SCMs in the ready mix industry and how they’re painting concrete “green.”

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Supplementary cementitious materials (SCM) have been around the concrete industry for decades. The leading SCMs in the ready mix industry are fly ash and blast slag. As the push for green building continues, you’ll see the use of these mixes increase. As a contractor, you’ll want to know how these mixes affect your job and how to take advantage of their benefits.


Fly ash, a fine powder that’s a by-product of burning coal, has been used in concrete in the United States since the 1940s. It was first used in projects where a reduced heat of hydration was desired, such as dam building. In the 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed stricter emissions controls on electricity manufactures, they started collecting more fly ash and increasingly began marketing its use. “The quality control and use of fly ash in concrete has grown more than 10 percent each year since the 1970s,” says John Ward, vice president of marketing and government affairs with Headwaters, Inc., the nation’s leading supplier of fly ash.

“The use of fly ash is increasing in a couple of ways,” Ward continues. “More and more people who didn’t use it before are starting to use it, and people who did use it before are learning ways to use it more.”

About 15 million tons of fly ash was used in concrete as a cement replacement in 2006.

According to the Slag Cement Association, blast slag, a by-product of manufacturing iron in a blast furnace, has roots in concrete applications going back to the 1890s, but its availability increased in the 1980s with the opening of a granulation facility in Baltimore and the establishment of ASTM specification soon after. Blast slag’s popularity remained in the mid-Atlantic states for much of the 1980s and early 1990s, but its popularity has increased in recent years as more facilities around the United States and Canada have opened, making the product more widely available.

In 2007, more than 3.5 million metric tons of slag was sold for concrete use.

Both fly ash and blast slag are used as supplemental cementitious materials and can replace a certain amount of Portland cement in a concrete mix. While the products are chemically different (fly ash is a pozzolan and blast slag a hydraulic cement), they lend some similar properties to a concrete mix.

“They can give you higher later-age strengths, reduce the permeability of concrete and improve the durability of concrete from the aspects of alkali-aggregate reaction, sulfate resistance and reduced heat of hydration,” says Colin Lobo, senior vice president of engineering with the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA). “There also seems to be some benefits in preventing corrosion of imposing steel because of the reduced permeability.”

Concrete mixes using blast slag and fly ash can also offer contractors increased workability and flow and better finishing. The addition of SCMs delay early strengths, but in most cases those issues can be overcome with planning.

Environmental benefits

Concrete has many properties that contribute to sustainable design - it includes local materials, paired with insulating products concrete can achieve high energy savings and it’s long-lasting. The addition of supplemental cementitious materials makes it even more attractive to those involved in sustainable building projects.

The use of fly ash and blast slag contributes to attaining points in the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED program (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). As a recycled post-industrial waste, blast slag and fly ash can contribute to gaining points under LEED’s Materials and Resources category, while certain SCM mixes can achieve points under the Innovation in Design category. Points are also available under the Sustainable Sites category, namely for concrete’s light coloring which contributes to minimizing the heat island effect. The Slag Cement Association adds that blast slag is a very light material and further increases concrete’s ability to reflect light and reduce the heat island effect over other concrete mixes.

Ward emphasizes that SCMs’ environmental benefits go beyond the points concrete might achieve on a LEED project.

“By not using some cement you’re conserving natural resources that would have gone into making cement. Another reason has to do with climate change and global warming. The manufacturing of cement creates greenhouse gases. The creation of 1 ton of cement creates 1 ton of carbon dioxide emissions, or the equivalent of driving a car for two months,” he explains.

SCMs on the job

Dennis Purinton, president of Purinton Builders, East Granby, Conn., has been working with SCM mixes for several years, teaming up with local ready mix suppliers to perfect designs. For the last year he’s been using 35 percent fly ash replacement in his standard concrete mixes for foundation walls.

Purinton Builders’ main focus is on residential foundations. Although he’s not often involved in the commercial projects that would go after LEED certification, Purinton has found his customers - both homeowners and builders - are interested in concrete’s environmental benefits. Purinton offers a foundation package that includes Thermomass-insulated cast-in-place walls for increased energy efficiency, waterproofing and SCM concrete.

“We refer to these [SCM] mix designs as ‘environmentally friendly green concrete’ in all of our proposals to customers,” Purinton explains. “There’s no question in my mind that it’s the right thing to do, but I’ve also been able to use it as a marketing strategy. And there was no cost involved on my end or on the customer’s end.”

Purinton has seen a huge increase in interest of the products he markets as environmental. He says the company experienced a relatively slow winter, but they currently have 10 projects booked for the spring, eight of which are his green foundations package. Purinton says in 2007 he completed only 25 insulated walls projects, but with the jump on these spring foundations projects for 2008 he is looking to track much higher.

In addition to his fly ash mixes, Purinton has been using a self-consolidating ternary blend concrete that includes fly ash, blast slag and Portland cement. Purinton has been so pleased with the ternary blend he hopes it will soon become the company’s standard wall mix. “The savings in labor, pumping cost, quality control and the appearance - which looks just like precast - by far exceed the additional cost of the material,” he says. He adds that not having to go back and fix blemishes and the lack for vibration really cuts down on labor.

Looking forward, Purinton says he wouldn’t be surprised to see all concrete mixes have some level of cement replacement in the next five years, both for the benefits they lend to concrete and to the environment.

“The green building movement is here to stay - it’s not a fad, and I think everyone should know that this is the direction the concrete industry is moving in,” Purinton says.