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Effect of fire

Concrete is generally considered to perform well when exposed to fire since it is inorganic, noncombustible and does not give off noxious fumes. Moreover, as well as being noncombustible,
concrete is a poor conductor of heat and has a relatively high specific heat capacity, which
facilitates its use as a protection material to other elements and even as a heat storage medium.
There are, however, several issues that make the real behavior of concretes in fire conditions less
straightforward and these are related to compositional and phase changes within concrete
constituents and the behavior of absorbed moisture.
Concrete as a material, it is difficult to discuss this meaningfully without considering the
manner of its incorporation in structures and the temperature response of steel, either because of
the use of concrete with embedded steel reinforcement or because concrete is used to provide fire
protection for steel structures.
Essentials of Concrete Behavior
There are two principal effects of fires on structural concrete:
Loss in strength of matrix by degradation of hydrate structure. This occurs at various stages
from 300C upwards but the main losses are seen at 500C plus.
Spalling and shelling of the outermost concrete. This can occur with most concretes but the
extent and rate is influenced by aggregate type, moisture content, concrete quality, fire severity
and imposed stress condition.
The overall behavior of concrete in a fire is the result of the complex interaction of the
mechanisms of strength loss and spalling. Although there has been considerable research on
concrete in fires and individual mechanisms identified and understood, the complexity of the
interactions makes precise prediction of behavior of concrete in structures extremely difficult.
Fire Damage
Fire affects concrete in extreme ways, some of which are listed below:
1. Uneven volume changes in affected members, resulting in distortion, buckling and
cracking. The temperature gradients are extreme: from ambient 21C, to higher than
800C at the source of the fire and near the surface.
2. Spalling of rapidly expanding concrete surface from extreme heat near the source of the
fire. Some aggregates expand in bursts, spalling the adjacent matrix. Moisture rapidly
changes to steam, causing localized bursting of small pieces of concrete.
3. The cement mortar converts to quicklime at temperatures of 400C, thereby causing
disintegration of the concrete.
4. Reinforcing steel loses tensile capacity as the temperature rises.
5. Once the reinforcing steel is exposed by the spalling action, the steel expands more
rapidly than the surrounding concrete, causing buckling and loss of bond to adjacent
concrete where the reinforcement is fully encased.
Figure-20 shows the effect of fire in structure.

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Strength loss in the cement matrix


Strength loss in the concrete matrix has been researched but some divergences in the detailed
conclusions are found in references. While individual mechanisms can be identified in specific
matrix components, e.g. the breakdown of hydrates in any one type of cement, the variety of
processes creating change in materials properties and their interactions result in different specific
values and consequences from the different researches. The broad temperature ranges over which
the changes occur and their effects on concrete properties, discussed below, should, however, be
sufficient to estimate overall performance and evaluate damage.
On initial heating concrete will first lose absorbed, free or evaporable water then bound
or adsorbed water. This loss of water may induce microcracking and some consequent loss in
compressive strength, possibly up to 10%. From 150C upwards some degradation loss of water
from silicate hydrates and from Portlandite (calcium hydroxide) can occur but above 300C the
loss of bound water from the hydration products becomes more prominent and further strength
loss will occur. With increasing temperature the strength loss continues in the silicate hydrates
and, at 350400C, in the calcium hydroxide by dehydration to form calcium oxide. It is also
suggested that the formation of calcium oxide can result in post-fire damage should the calcium
oxide react with water, such as from fire extinguishing efforts, causing swelling and cracking. By
approximately 500C a considerable loss in strength has occurred variously recorded as 50 to
75% of original strength and temperatures in the range 550600C have variously been taken
as the upper limit for retention of any useful strength in the concrete. However, degradation
processes and losses continue to take place up to 850900C. The strength loss does not appear
to be uniquely defined and research outputs vary in the extent of loss recorded, but reductions of
the order of 7080% are quoted where the concrete becomes loose and friable.
A similar scale of change is found in concrete compressive modulus, over the same
temperature ranges described above in relation to strength. The type of cement is thought to have
some influence on strength loss. For cements with fly ash or ground granulated blast furnace slag
there is some suggestion that the lower quantities of free calcium hydroxide in the hydrated
microstructure give reduced losses on heating. However, for most Portland type cements, these
differences are sufficiently small as to not affect the practical performance of the concrete and
therefore cement types are not explicitly selected for fire resistance.
There are two exceptions to this general conclusion on cement type. The first is concretes
with microsilica where the very low permeability paste produced is thought to significantly

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Figure-20
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increases spalling risk see below on high strength concrete. The second exception is concrete
made with Calcium aluminate cements. These have greater resistance to strength loss at high
temperatures and are used for specialist non-structural applications such as refractory linings or
industrial floor toppings in foundries
Spalling
Spalling of concrete in fires is the breaking-off of layers of the concrete surface in response to
the applied heat. Spalling can be either localized or widespread depending upon the fire and/or
concrete condition, particularly moisture content, and the susceptibility to break-up of heatunstable aggregate particles. On prolonged heating areas of concrete cover can also just fall
away, a process that is sometimes called sloughing. The processes causing sloughing are not
generally reported, although it is noted that it occurs from corners of beams and slabs and seems
to spread along a plane of weakness parallel to the outer surface. Because sloughing occurs late
in a fire exposure it is considered by some as being of less concern than explosive spalling that
occurs earlier upon exposure to fire. Understanding explosive spalling is important because of
the potential for loss in section of the concrete element, the depth of fire affected concrete and
the reduced protection to embedded steel. Spalling is a frequently observed phenomenon in fire;
more prominently on soffits of slabs and on beams because of the greater exposure to heat and
possibly heat entrapment.
The prediction of risk of spalling occurrence has not proven easy despite considerable
research. The propensity to spall is influenced by the moisture content of the concrete, the
permeability of the concrete, the rate of heating, the nature of the aggregate and the load applied
to the concrete. Although these separate contributing mechanisms have been identified, their
relative contribution and their interaction are less well understood. There are, however, general
trends that can be established. Concretes in a moist or saturated condition will spall faster and
more extensively the drier the concrete.
Influence of Aggregate type
The contribution of aggregate type to spalling and section loss is both from the nature of the
aggregate itself and the differences in temperature-related properties between aggregates and the
surrounding matrix. It is commonly found that siliceous aggregates such as flint gravels give the
poorest resistance to spalling. This is explained by being partly the result of markedly different
coefficients of thermal expansion between the aggregate and cement paste, particularly at higher
temperatures, and partly the result of a volume increase phase transformation (at approximately
570C) from -quartz to -quartz.
Limestone aggregates have generally been shown to give good fire resisting performance
but not all design codes have found the evidence consistent enough to give design guidance
differentiating that performance. There are several reasons why limestone type aggregates can be
expected to give improved resistance to degradation. First, the aggregates typically have lower
coefficient of thermal expansion than siliceous aggregates and they are closer to that of cement
paste, giving lower internal stresses on heating. There are also no solid state phase changes in
limestone aggregates within fire exposure conditions. On heating to temperatures in excess of
660C calcium carbonates begin to break down, similarly above 740C for magnesium
carbonates. On breaking down the minerals release carbon dioxide, in itself an endothermic
reaction, but the released carbon dioxide is claimed to give blanketing protection against heat
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transfer. The residual aggregate particles also have lower thermal conductivity, further reducing
heat transfer into the concrete.
Behavior of Concrete in Extreme fires
Concrete does not melt in the majority of extreme fire conditions but it could do so in
conditions such as created by, for example, a thermic lance (steel burning in a pure oxygen
environment). However, this is exceptional and is not normally considered in the design of
reinforced concrete subject to hydrocarbon fires.
Rapid heat rise in concrete causes evaporation of free and physically bound water and, at higher
temperatures, moisture loss by dehydration of cement hydrates. If the permeability of the
concrete is insufficient to allow an adequate rate of dissipation then the vapour pressure in the
pores of the concrete will rise. A contribution to the low apparent permeability-resisting vapour
dissipation is the vapour condensation further inside the concrete away from the fire. Once the
vapour pressure rises to a critical level cracking and explosive spalling will occur.
This explosive spalling can occur after only a few minutes and rates are quoted in some
reports of up to 3 mm/min for normal-weight aggregate concrete and up to 8 mm/ min for
lightweight aggregate concrete. More information is needed on these rates and the contribution
from the various parameters.
Other types of spalling such as local spalling and sloughing-off (gradual reduction of a
cross-section) that have been observed in cellulosic fires are possible but explosive spalling
seems to be the dominant form in an extreme hydrocarbon fire.
As was described earlier, concrete subjected to high temperature will suffer loss of
strength. The strength loss increases as the temperature increases and both the aggregate and the
cement hydrates are affected. At the very high peak temperatures in a hydrocarbon fire the
aggregate and cement hydrates may be completely destroyed. Many factors have an influence on
the performance of concrete in hydrocarbon fire but those with a primary influence are:
o the rate of temperature rise in the concrete
o the moisture content of the concrete
o the permeability of the concrete
These factors are interlinked but there is some evidence to suggest that, at least for low
permeability concrete, sufficient vapour pressure for damage to occur can be generated by
decomposition of cement hydration products alone, even where there is little or no free water
within the concrete pores. This would mean that indoor concrete would never dry sufficiently for
spalling not to be a problem and, that self-desiccation in concrete with a very low water/cement
ratio would not alleviate the problem.
The definition of satisfactory performance will be dependent on individual
circumstances. Nevertheless, it is likely that the very high rate of temperature rise in a
hydrocarbon fire will cause explosive spalling and loss of section at a high rate, particularly in
high strength concrete and lightweight aggregate concrete. Reinforcement could thus be exposed
to high temperatures in less than approximately 20 minutes depending on depth of cover and
other factors.

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Improving the Fire Resistance of Concrete


For many fire incidents concrete can be considered to be sufficiently resistant to damage by fire
that, on its own, it needs no further protection. There may, however, be situations where more
severe design fires are envisaged, or the existing concrete construction is considered inadequate
for new conditions or where concern about the inherent performance exist, e.g. for high-strength
concrete. For these conditions enhanced fire protection or resistance may be required.
Where a simple increase in the thickness of concrete cover would satisfy the design
requirements, the design Codes allow the use of equivalent thicknesses of other passive materials
such as sand cement render or gypsum plaster. Alternatively, fire protection boards can be
mechanically fixed around the concrete sections. Steel structures are frequently protected against
fire by the application of relatively thin intumescent coatings, which foam upon exposure to
produce a protective char. Although attempts have been made to use these materials on concrete,
they have not been very successful to date. One particular problem is that, even with the
protection in place, the temperature in the concrete is sufficient to vaporize moisture which then
disrupts the coating.
One method for improving the fire performance of high strength concrete in cellulosic
fires and all types of concrete in more extreme fires, is the incorporation of fine polypropylene
fibres within the concrete (HSE, 2001). At present this route is only adopted for new concretes
where the fibres can be incorporated into the mix but it may be possible to develop overlays for
some existing structures. The action of polypropylene fibres was initially believed to be by fibre
melting and vaporization upon heating providing escape pathways for moisture. It was known
from tests that such fibres could be effective but not all fibres were found to be equally effective
and there was some uncertainty about the influence of fibre geometry and quantity. Research in
France (Kalifa et al., 2001) has provided significantly better insight into the mechanism of
beneficial action by the fibres.
The research measured the pressure build-up in the porous network within the concrete
for additions of different polypropylene fibres close to the conventional level of approximately
2 kg/m3. The data obtained showed that lower dosages than previously thought can be beneficial
and that the fibres are already contributing to preventative action at temperatures well below that
necessary for vaporization. It was concluded that the polypropylene on melting at
approximately 170C was absorbed into the cement paste of the matrix, creating the necessary
pathways. Further research on this aspect would be helpful in increasing understanding.

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