Cement is a substance used for binding and hardening other materials. Water and cement set and harden through a chemical reaction known as 'hydration'. The process of hardening is described as 'curing', which requires particular conditions of temperature and humidity.
Cement can be mixed with a fine aggregate and water to produce mortar, used in masonry construction as a bedding and adhesive to bind and fill the gaps between adjacent blocks of brick, concrete or stone. It can be also be mixed with water, aggregates (such as gravel, sand or rock), and sometimes admixtures, to form concrete, and can be used to make renders, screeds and so on. The ratio of water and cement will determine the overall strength and quality of the mix.
The exact properties of the cement paste are very important:
- It must be fluid enough for some time after mixing to allow the mix to be formed into its final shape.
- It must then set and gain strength so that it binds the aggregates together to produce a strong material.
 Types of cement
 Portland cement
Almost all concrete is made with Portland cement. It is also the principal cement used in most masonry mortars and renders. It is manufactured by heating together limestone (or chalk) and clay (or shale) in large rotary kilns. The chemistry of Portland cement largely consists of calcium silicate which reacts with water to form a strong, durable cement paste.
 Low heat blast-furnace Portland cement
This is a special blended cement with low heat of hydration characteristics for mass concreting. The advantage of this kind of cement over ordinary Portland cement is that, although it has a slower strength gain, it has a higher ultimate strength, as well as better workability.
 Rapid hardening cement
This hardens faster than Portland cement, as it includes more silicates, however, the final strength is only slightly higher. The one-day strength of this cement is equal to the three-day strength of Portland cement with the same water-cement ratio. It is mainly used where formwork has to be removed for reuse.
 Sulphate resisting cement
Sulphates exist in rain and sea water and can be harmful to building materials. Sulphate resisting cement is a type of modified Portland cement that can be used in conditions where concrete is exposed to the risk of deterioration due to sulphate attack.
High alumina cement (HAC, sometimes known as calcium aluminate cement (CAC) or aluminous cement) is composed of calcium aluminates rather than calcium silicates. It is manufactured from limestone or chalk and bauxite. Historically, HAC was used in marine applications where it was considered to be resistant to chemical attack, as well as in structural concrete such as pre-cast beams. However, HAC is no longer used in structural concrete in the UK as it prone to a crystalline re-arrangement (or 'conversion'), which can result in reduced strength and vulnerability to chemical attack when exposed to water for long periods.
For more information see High alumina cement.
 Storage of cement
Cement is hydroscopic which means it absorbs water. If it is not protected in air-tight silos or bags on-site, it can hydrate. Water initiates the hydration process which can lead to a 20% reduction in strength over 3 months, and a 50% reduction in strength over 2 years. It is important therefore to ensure hydration does not occur; for example, paper bags of cement incorporate a plastic layer and to inhibit moisture uptake.
- Clean: Free from any organic substances such as dust or other fine materials.
- Hard/strong: Most cement in construction is used to resist compressive forces.
- Durable: Must be able to resist forces over a long time period.
- Capable of good adhesion: The cement paste needs to physically bind to other aggregates and grip effectively.
- Good shape: Smooth and round aggregates provide good workability, whereas angular and rough aggregates tend to give better compressive strength.
- Fine: < 5 mm (sand or crushed rock)
- Coarse: > 5 mm (naturally occurring gravel or crushed rock)
 Grading of aggregates
Grading is the distribution of sizes of particles in aggregates, usually expressed in terms of cumulative percentages larger or smaller than each other. It is important in terms of preventing voids.
For grading, a sample of aggregate is placed in a container of sieves of successively reducing sizes. The container is vibrated for a specified period and the aggregate retained on each sieve is measured. This provides a profile of the distribution of different particle sizes in the aggregate.
 Setting and hardening
For some time, the mix remains plastic and may be moulded into the desired shape. After a period (dependent upon temperature, humidity, etc.), the mixture loses its plasticity and begins to harden and gain strength. The gain in strength is rapid in early stages, but it will continue to gain strength for some months provided there is still water to combine with cement.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Alkali-aggregate reaction (AAR).
- Applications, performance characteristics and environmental benefits of alkali-activated binder concretes.
- Cellular concrete.
- Cement in Saudi Arabia.
- Coal ash.
- Concrete vs. steel.
- Concreting plant.
- Fibre cement.
- High alumina cement.
- Lime mortar.
- Material Flow Analysis: A tool for sustainable aggregate sourcing.
- Power float.
- Research on novel cements to reduce CO2 emissions.
Featured articles and news
ICE responds to the first consultation on the government's industrial strategy post-Brexit.
Take a look at this newly-opened tower in Chicago with a remarkable 20:1 height-to-base ratio.
An Arc de Triomphe for the late-20th century, the La Grande Arche of Paris.
Richard Hayward of Legrand asks whether technology could help developers meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population.
Thomas Heatherwick's ambitious steel structure begins construction.
The principles, practice and formwork of one of the most important components of modern architecture.
New report claims that inappropriate standards and regulations are holding back the use of composites.
The global smart homes and smart light commercial market will grow fastest in the UK.
Have a look at our article explaining the different types of construction contractor.
Futurist Thomas Frey explores the concept of Disposable Housing - could it be a reality sooner than we imagine?
Do you know all the various types of defects in brickwork?