Portland Cement: A Concrete History With Structural Integrity

By: Nicole Antonio  | 
A construction worker mixes cement to create concrete at a construction site.
A construction worker mixes cement to create concrete at a construction site. Recep Buyukguzel / Getty Images

Of course you know what cement is. You see it every day — or is that concrete? And what is Portland cement? We'll get to those distinctions in a moment.

What you probably do know is that the grey stuff's reliable binding properties make it a cost-effective solution for building structures with remarkable strength and durability.


Widespread use of concrete transformed the landscape of cities and enabled the construction of iconic buildings and structures that still stand today, including buildings, bridges, roads, pipes, blocks and panels. Its versatility and widespread availability make it an essential material in the modern construction industry.

What Is Portland Cement?

The composite material, consisting of three key raw materials, is a hydraulic cement. It works through a process called hydration, which entails adding water to dry cement particles or powder.

This initiates a chemical reaction, causing the cement to harden and form a solid mass. The hydration process forms calcium silicate hydrate (CSH) gel, which acts as the binding material. This gel fills the gaps between aggregate particles, such as sand and gravel, creating a strong and durable concrete.


Raw Materials in Portland Cement

Limestone, clay and gypsum are the three key raw materials that comprise Portland cement.

  • Limestone, a sedimentary rock rich in calcium carbonate, provides the necessary calcium for the cement's chemical reactions.
  • Clay, which contains silica, alumina and iron oxide, contributes to the cement's strength and sets its properties.
  • Gypsum helps to regulate the setting time of the cement.


Cemented in History

A long time ago, in a civilization far, far away ... ancient Romans were already using cement. They formed a hydraulic binder with lime and volcanic ash or pozzolana, a mixture they called Roman cement. Its impressive resistance to seawater made it a great option for constructing aqueducts and other marine structures. But the building material had its drawbacks: Long setting times slowed progress, and pozzolana wasn't readily available everywhere the Romans wanted to build.

A couple millenia later came Joseph Aspdin, an English bricklayer. In 1824, Aspdin had a breakthrough with his innovative process of heating limestone along with clay, resulting in a new type of cement with exceptional binding properties. He named it "Portland cement" as a nod to its resemblance to a natural limestone found on the Isle of Portland in England.


During the Industrial Revolution, Portland cement quickly gained recognition for its strength and durability, surpassing other building materials of the time. Its remarkable binding properties allowed for the creation of concrete, a versatile material capable of withstanding heavy loads and adverse weather conditions.

With the advent of Portland cement, builders and engineers could construct taller, more resilient structures and infrastructure, contributing to the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the 19th century.

The demand for Portland cement facilities soared, and its production spread globally. Manufacturers exported to various countries, including the United States, where the first Portland cement manufacturing facility was established in 1871.

This marked the beginning of a significant shift in not just the cement industry, but the American construction industry as a whole, since modern Portland cement has become the preferred material for bridges, buildings, and infrastructure projects due to its strength, durability, and availability.


Making Portland Cement Clinker

Portland cement clinker is the key component of Portland cement and is produced through a complex manufacturing process. The typical compound compositions will vary slightly from one cement production facility to another, based on factors such as the purity of the raw materials, but all of them begin by extracting limestone and clay from quarries, which manufacturers subsequently crush and homogenize to form a consistent mixture.

The next step involves heating the raw materials in a kiln at high temperatures, typically around 2,642 degrees Fahrenheit (1,450 degrees Celsius). The intense heat transforms the calcium carbonate in the limestone into calcium oxide, releasing carbon dioxide gas. At the same time, the clay minerals react to form new compounds.


The resulting material, called clinker, consists of small, grayish-black nodules ranging in size from a few millimeters to a few centimeters. The clinker is then cooled and pulverized into a finished cement powder known as Portland cement. This powder is the basis for producing various types of cement by blending it with other materials, such as gypsum and mineral additives.

The production of Portland cement clinker is a critical and energy-intensive process that requires precise control and adherence to specific chemical compositions and temperature conditions. For instance, allowing too much tricalcium aluminate to form can lead to less heat-resistant cement.


Types of Portland Cement

Each of these Portland cements comes with distinct physical properties and specific applications in the construction industry.

Type I

Often called ordinary Portland cement (OPC), this general-purpose binder is known for its versatility and strength. Its applications include residential and commercial construction, foundations, pavements and precast products. Type I cement sets and hardens slowly, making it suitable for projects that require longer working times.


Type II

Designed to provide increased durability and resistance to sulfate attack, this is ideal for projects exposed to moderate sulfate concentrations in soils or groundwater, such as foundations, retaining walls and underground structures.

Type III

Also known as high-early-strength cement, this is formulated to achieve rapid strength development. It is commonly used in time-sensitive construction projects where early strength gain is crucial, such as high-rise buildings, precast concrete elements and cold-weather construction. Type III cement allows for faster construction schedules and early loading of structures.

Type IV

Optimized for use in massive concrete structures that generate significant heat during hydration, the low heat of hydration properties make this suitable for large dams, mass concrete foundations and other structures where excessive heat can cause cracking or structural damage. Type IV Portland cement offers slower strength development but provides long-term strength and durability.

Type V

This is specifically formulated to resist the severe chemical attacks of sulfates, ensuring the long-term durability of concrete in such aggressive environments. It is commonly used in environments with high sulfate concentrations, such as wastewater treatment plants, marine structures and areas with high sulfate soil conditions.


What's the Difference Between Concrete and Cement?

In essence, cement is the ingredient that gives concrete its strength and stability. Concrete is a composite material consisting of cement, aggregates (such as sand and gravel), water and sometimes additives. Cement acts as the glue that holds the aggregates together, allowing the formation of a solid and durable structure.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.