Reinforced concrete is a composite material in which concrete’s relatively low tensile strength and ductility are counteracted by the inclusion of reinforcement having higher tensile strength and/or ductility. The reinforcement is usually, though not necessarily, steel reinforcing bars (rebar) and is usually embedded passively in the concrete before it sets. Reinforcing schemes are generally designed to resist tensile stresses in particular regions of the concrete that might cause unacceptable cracking and/or structural failure. Modern reinforced concrete can contain varied reinforcing materials made of steel, polymers or alternate composite material in conjunction with rebar or not. Reinforced concrete may also be permanently stressed (in compression), so as to improve the behaviour of the final structure under working loads. In the United States, the most common methods of doing this are known as pre-tensioning and post-tensioning.

For a strong, ductile and durable construction the reinforcement needs to have the following properties at least:

  • High relative strength
  • High toleration of tensile strain
  • Good bond to the concrete, irrespective of pH, moisture, and similar factors
  • Thermal compatibility, not causing unacceptable stresses in response to changing temperatures.
  • Durability in the concrete environment, irrespective of corrosion or sustained stress for example.

Use in construction

François Coignet was a French industrialist of the nineteenth century, a pioneer in the development of structural prefabricated and reinforced concrete.[1] Coignet was the first to use iron-reinforced concrete as a technique for constructing building structures.[2] In 1853 Coignet built the first iron reinforced concrete structure, a four story house at 72 rue Charles Michels in the suburbs of Paris.

Many different types of structures and components of structures can be built using reinforced concrete including slabs, walls, beams, columns, foundations, frames and more.

Reinforced concrete can be classified as precast or cast-in-place concrete.

Designing and implementing the most efficient floor system is key to creating optimal building structures. Small changes in the design of a floor system can have significant impact on material costs, construction schedule, ultimate strength, operating costs, occupancy levels and end use of a building.

Without reinforcement, constructing modern structures with the concrete material would not be possible.

Behavior of reinforced concrete

Materials: Concrete is a mixture of coarse (stone or brick chips) and fine (generally sand or crushed stone) aggregates with a binder material (usually Portland cement). When mixed with a small amount of water, the cement hydrates to form microscopic opaque crystal lattices encapsulating and locking the aggregate into a rigid structure. Typical concrete mixes have high resistance to compressive stresses (about 4,000 psi (28 MPa)); however, any appreciable tension (e.g., due to bending) will break the microscopic rigid lattice, resulting in cracking and separation of the concrete. For this reason, typical non-reinforced concrete must be well supported to prevent the development of tension.
If a material with high strength in tension, such as steel, is placed in concrete, then the composite material, reinforced concrete, resists not only compression but also bending and other direct tensile actions. A reinforced concrete section where the concrete resists the compression and steel resists the tension can be made into almost any shape and size for the construction industry.

Key characteristics: Three physical characteristics give reinforced concrete its special properties:
The coefficient of thermal expansion of concrete is similar to that of steel, eliminating large internal stresses due to differences in thermal expansion or contraction.
When the cement paste within the concrete hardens, this conforms to the surface details of the steel, permitting any stress to be transmitted efficiently between the different materials. Usually steel bars are roughened or corrugated to further improve the bond or cohesion between the concrete and steel.

The alkaline chemical environment provided by the alkali reserve (KOH, NaOH) and the portlandite (calcium hydroxide) contained in the hardened cement paste causes a passivating film to form on the surface of the steel, making it much more resistant to corrosion than it would be in neutral or acidic conditions. When the cement paste exposed to the air and meteoric water reacts with the atmospheric CO2, portlandite and the Calcium Silicate Hydrate (CSH) of the hardened cement paste become progressively carbonated and the high pH gradually decreases from 13.5 – 12.5 to 8.5, the pH of water in equilibrium with calcite (calcium carbonate) and the steel is no longer passivated.

As a rule of thumb, only to give an idea on orders of magnitude, steel is protected at pH above ~11 but starts to corrode below ~10 depending on steel characteristics and local physico-chemical conditions when concrete becomes carbonated. Carbonatation of concrete along with chloride ingress are amongst the chief reasons for the failure of reinforcement bars in concrete.

The relative cross-sectional area of steel required for typical reinforced concrete is usually quite small and varies from 1% for most beams and slabs to 6% for some columns. Reinforcing bars are normally round in cross-section and vary in diameter. Reinforced concrete structures sometimes have provisions such as ventilated hollow cores to control their moisture & humidity.

Distribution of concrete (in spite of reinforcement) strength characteristics along the cross-section of vertical reinforced concrete elements is inhomogeneous.

Mechanism of composite action of reinforcement and concrete: The reinforcement in a RC structure, such as a steel bar, has to undergo the same strain or deformation as the surrounding concrete in order to prevent discontinuity, slip or separation of the two materials under load. Maintaining composite action requires transfer of load between the concrete and steel. The direct stress is transferred from the concrete to the bar interface so as to change the tensile stress in the reinforcing bar along its length. This load transfer is achieved by means of bond (anchorage) and is idealized as a continuous stress field that develops in the vicinity of the steel-concrete interface.

Anchorage (bond) in concrete: Codes of specifications: Because the actual bond stress varies along the length of a bar anchored in a zone of tension, current international codes of specifications use the concept of development length rather than bond stress. The main requirement for safety against bond failure is to provide a sufficient extension of the length of the bar beyond the point where the steel is required to develop its yield stress and this length must be at least equal to its development length. However, if the actual available length is inadequate for full development, special anchorages must be provided, such as cogs or hooks or mechanical end plates. The same concept applies to lap splice length mentioned in the codes where splices (overlapping) provided between two adjacent bars in order to maintain the required continuity of stress in the splice zone.

Anti-corrosion measures: In wet and cold climates, reinforced concrete for roads, bridges, parking structures and other structures that may be exposed to deicing salt may benefit from use of corrosion-resistant reinforcement such as uncoated, low carbon/chromium (micro composite), epoxy-coated, hot dip galvanised or stainless steel rebar. Good design and a well-chosen cement mix will provide additional protection for many applications. Uncoated, low carbon/chromium rebar looks similar to standard carbon steel rebar due to its lack of a coating and the inclusion of its highly corrosion-resistant features are inherent in the steel microstructure. It can be identified by the unique ASTM specified mill marking on its smooth, dark charcoal finish. Epoxy coated rebar can easily be identified by the light green colour of its epoxy coating. Hot dip galvanized rebar may be bright or dull grey depending on length of exposure, and stainless rebar exhibits a typical white metallic sheen that is readily distinguishable from carbon steel reinforcing bar. Reference ASTM standard specifications A1035/A1035M Standard Specification for Deformed and Plain Low-carbon, Chromium, Steel Bars for Concrete Reinforcement,A767 Standard Specification for Hot Dip Galvanised Reinforcing Bars, A775 Standard Specification for Epoxy Coated Steel Reinforcing Bars and A955 Standard Specification for Deformed and Plain Stainless Bars for Concrete Reinforcement.

Another, cheaper way of protecting rebars is coating them with zinc phosphate.[5] Zinc phosphate slowly reacts with calcium cations and the hydroxyl anions present in the cement pore water and forms a stable hydroxyapatite layer.

Penetrating sealants typically must be applied some time after curing. Sealants include paint, plastic foams, films and aluminum foil, felts or fabric mats sealed with tar, and layers of bentonite clay, sometimes used to seal roadbeds.

Corrosion inhibitors, such as calcium nitrite [Ca(NO2)2], can also be added to the water mix before pouring concrete. Generally, 1–2 wt. % of [Ca(NO2)2] with respect to cement weight is needed to prevent corrosion of the rebars. The nitrite anion is a mild oxidizer that oxidizes the soluble and mobile ferrous ions (Fe2+) present at the surface of the corroding steel and causes it to precipitate as an insoluble ferric hydroxide (Fe(OH)3). This causes the passivation of steel at the anodic oxidation sites. Nitrite is a much more active corrosion inhibitor than nitrate, a less powerful oxidizer of the divalent iron.