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Untying Brexit's toxic knots

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This week David Lammy, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a major and important speech at Chatham House. It wasn’t by any means all about Brexit, but, even where it was not, it could be read as the outlines of a serious post-Brexit foreign policy. That is something which, along with many others, I’ve been arguing has been needed for quite some time.

Some of the direct references to Brexit included the need for pragmatism rather than “the ideological purity of the ERG” and the need to find “a new, settled place in Europe”, with practical, though still rather vague, steps being in the improvement of trading relationship and a new security pact with the EU. It also recognized the damage the Brexit process has done to Britain’s reputation especially for respecting the rule of law, making implicit and sometimes explicit reference to what has happened over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Like any such speech, there was a lot of aspirational rhetoric and, for sure, the proposals for closer ties with the EU will be far too limited for many erstwhile remainers. But, without claiming more for it than was there, it would be quite absurd to suggest that there is no difference between Tories and Labour on post-Brexit policy.

In particular, the speech contained, if nothing else, a clear commitment to re-normalise UK-EU relations, and also a recognition that these relations are about more than being trading partners. That matters, both as a counter to the quite unwarranted antagonism that Brexit Britain has shown the EU and to the too often transactional terms in which, even when a member, the UK approached the EU.

The significance of Lammy’s speech

However, I think its larger significance was in articulating, under the general theme of ‘Reconnecting Britain’, two core principles. One is the necessity and desirability of the interdependence of nations, and the other the inextricable linkage of, and therefore need for coherence between, foreign and domestic policy and politics.

Whilst these are both quite abstract, high-level notions, they do go the heart of the collateral or contingent damage that Brexit has done. What I mean by that is that whilst the central damage of Brexit is Brexit itself, in the literal sense of leaving the EU, and can’t be significantly fixed without reversing Brexit, or at least hard Brexit, there are additional damages which came from the way Brexit was sold and enacted. Not only can these potentially be undone even without reversing (hard) Brexit but doing so is likely to be a necessary step if (hard) Brexit is ever to be reversed.

Those additional damages relate most obviously to the Brexiter incomprehension and, worse, outright denial of the complex realities of international interdependence. But they are also, albeit in quite convoluted ways, to do with the incoherent relationship between domestic and foreign politics that Brexit initiated. And, in the final and most toxic twist, the worst damage has been to treat domestic attempts to recognize the reality of international interdependence as anti-democratic and treacherous.

In this post I’ll try to tease out the different strands of this, and show how they relate to the whole Brexit process including some of the most recent developments, in order to show why I think Lammy’s speech is an important and positive step.

The parochialism of Brexit

Many Brexiters react with outrage if it is suggested that their project is one of inward-looking ‘little Englandism’. On the contrary, they will insist, it is about recognizing horizons way beyond Europe, no longer being ‘shackled to the corpse’ of the EU, re-establishing Britain as a ‘sovereign equal’ amongst nations, ‘re-gaining our seat’ at the WTO, and reviving ‘Global Britain’. Their preferred self-description as ‘Brexiteers’, with its echoes of buccaneering exploration, is a testament to this supposedly outward-looking stance. Yet one of the most remarkable features of Brexit is how myopic, parochial, and domestically focussed it has been, and continues to be. That’s partly characterised by ignoring the outside world but even more by assuming, and even insisting, that the outside world conforms to the falsities and fantasies of Brexit.   

Thus throughout the Article 50 process far more time and energy were expended on internal negotiations than on those with the EU, and these internal negotiations weren’t even amongst the huge variety of interested parties within the UK, but only the factions of the Tory Party. In particular, they were primarily about what the ERG wing of the party would accept. At the same time, whenever the EU made clear that, as was always obvious to anyone who knew anything about it, the Brexiters’ demands were unrealistic, this was denounced as ‘punishment’ for Brexit, as if ideas fermented within the Brexiter bubble about what the EU ‘ought’ to do (for example in the supposed interests of ‘German car makers’) had some kind of validity outside that bubble.

I mentioned in my last post the new book about the Brexit negotiations, written by Stefaan de Rynck, one of Michel Barnier’s senior aides. I haven’t read the book yet, but its pre-released preface, by Peter Foster – now Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times but the Telegraph’s Europe Editor during the negotiations, and one of the finest journalists covering Brexit  – is revealing in itself. It notes the British government’s failure “to level with the electorate of the realities of life” outside the EU, and indicates how, associated with that, there was a pervasive lack of realism on the part of the government itself shown, for example, by the presentation of absurd and unworkable proposals to the EU negotiating team. It was very much a break with the previous, pragmatic and often effective way that the UK foreign policy machine had operated. But “in the grip of Brexit fever, all that savvy and know-how [of British statecraft] somehow went of the window”, Foster writes.

The ’somehow’ is fairly easily explained. Politicians who believed in Brexit, or believed they had to act as if they did, had persuaded themselves of a series of fantasies, and dragooned civil servants into acting as if they could be made realities. Those civil servants who would not embrace the fantasies were side-lined or, effectively, forced out. The resignation, early on in the Brexit process, of Sir Ivan Rogers was both a key example and, as I suggested at the time, a harbinger of what was to come.

Those fantasies were multiple, but the principal ones were that it was possible to replicate or closely replicate the trading benefits of single market and customs union membership without being members of either, and that hard Brexit could be enacted without creating a border on one side or the other of Northern Ireland. From those were spawned multiple sub-fantasies about ‘technological solutions’ for the Irish border, the possibilities of GATT Article XXIV and numerous others.

Most damaging of all, having been sold to the leave-voting electorate, these fantasies became enshrined as the ‘will of the people’, as if, even if impossible in reality, anything ‘the people’ voted for must be turned into reality and, if it were not, democracy would have been betrayed. We are still living with the consequences of this. For our entire politics is still hamstrung by the implacable theology of a relatively small number of Brexit fanatics in politics and the media, and the diminishing but still very large section of the population that believes their fantasises and lies.

Thus, even now, entirely unsurprisingly, the ERG are sharpening their knives to attack the mooted “compromise” (£) which Sunak may do over the Northern Ireland Protocol as a ‘betrayal of Brexit’, with Boris Johnson lurking opportunistically in the background, ready to condemn it in pursuit of his own insatiable self-interest. At the same time, David Frost chunters malevolently (£) from the side-lines about ‘no deal being better than a bad deal’ in the Protocol negotiations. Apparently he is unaware that if no deal is done there will still be a deal in place – which is surprising, since it is the one he negotiated.

An indifferent world

Meanwhile, the outside world, far from being impressed, oscillates between being indifferent, bewildered and bemused, not just by Brexit itself but the political chaos and instability it has unleashed in Britain. Far from blazing a trail for ‘freedom’, support for leaving the EU amongst other member states has dropped significantly since, and surely as a result of, the UK’s decision to do so.

But the UK is not just alone in wanting to leave the EU, it is isolated as a result of doing so. As a British business leader at Davos last week is reported as saying (£) “there was a real sense of a new reality dawning. We are not invited to the top table”. More generally, as former Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it in his own Chatham House speech last December, “our global influence and capability, not just reputation, has been seriously undermined by political chaos and economic weakness since 2016”.

Many leave voters will simply be unaware of this, and are gulled by endless paeans to the ‘world-leading’ status of Brexit Britain. But leading Brexiters, who are not so unaware, dismiss it as the chatter of the ‘global Establishment’ and, in so doing, reveal the myopia beneath their ‘Global Britain’ sloganizing since, if it means anything, and actually even if it doesn’t, Global Britain can’t avoid engaging with the ‘global Establishment’ in some way.

Saying this isn’t to imply uncritical support for economic globalization and its institutions, which are in any case under multiple strains. It’s to point to the strategic inadequacy of ignoring economic regionalization and the complex geo-politics that go with it, something recognized in Lammy’s speech, and the danger of viewing those developments through the parochial lens of Brexit populism, as if they were invented by ‘global elites’ abroad and ‘the metropolitan elite’ at home to thwart the simple yeoman honesty of ‘the people’. It’s an inadequacy illustrated just this week by David Frost’s latest foray into political philosophy (£) where he propounds an idea of “nationhood” that, never mind being outdated, has never existed.

A cause and consequence of this parochialism is the way that the endless proliferation of pro-Brexit think tanks and lobby groups invariably involve the same couple of dozen politicians, academics and commentators, a cult-like hall of echo chambers that is either oblivious to, or dismissive of, external realities. They have certainly wielded great influence, domestically, but, again, it is dangerous and ultimately doomed, because the world beyond is not just indifferent to Brexiter fantasies but, when at risk of being affected by them, bites back.

The realities of sovereignty

That was most starkly illustrated by the fiasco of the Brexit ‘mini-budget’, with Brexiters like Patrick Minford simply unable to understand why traders in international financial markets didn’t endorse the ‘new reality’ of Brexit economics, a reality defined by the crackpot theories Minford and his small group of maverick economists have cooked up. A very small but hugely telling illustration of the thinking, at once naïve and grandiose, underpinning this Brexit hubris came from Telegraph columnist and Brexiter Tim Stanley. Bemoaning the power of ‘the markets’ to make or break government policy he plaintively tweeted that this ran counter to what Brexit was all about, namely “Sovereignty. Democracy. Whatever the people want they get”.

This inability to understand that ‘sovereignty’ doesn’t bestow untrammelled freedom is creating multiple problems for Brexit Britain. It is one thing to talk about sovereignty in this naïve way for domestic political purposes, but quite another to operationalise it internationally. For example, as Gerhard Schnyder astutely observes in his latest Brexit Impact Tracker blog, “while the US and EU may not care how much damage the Brits decide to inflict on themselves, the situation is different regarding NI [Northern Ireland]. NI is thus at least partially protected from the full blow of Westminster madness”.

That is a reminder that, as happened so often during the original Brexit negotiations, the delusions of the ERG and their allies, whilst shaping so much of domestic politics, were never able to trump the realities of Brexit. Hence their enduring fantasy that there is no need for any form of Irish border couldn’t, and will never, prevail over the fact that it was the inevitable consequence of hard Brexit. Hence, too, that for all their bombast of ‘holding all the cards’ and for all their fantasies about a trade deal that would effectively replicate single market membership, the reality in the end was the thin ‘zero tariffs’ trade deal.

That arose partly because removing non-tariff barriers would entail the kinds of regulatory interdependence that was incompatible with Brexiters’ notion of national sovereignty, partly because many of them, such as David Frost, simply denied the significance of non-tariff barriers, especially for services trade where they are the only barriers, and partly because they also don’t understand international supply chains. Taken together, this created the delusion that trade occurs in the form of finished goods moving once between countries, inhibited only by tariffs, or at least acting as if that were the case.

Beneath all that lay the negotiating reality that the EU was utterly indifferent to Brexiters’ beliefs about what it should or would do. The world didn’t work the way they believed it to do, and no amount of belief or bluster could change that. So, far from the great deal which Brexiters promised was there for the taking, and which Johnson pretended to have delivered, what was created was the bare bones deal we actually have.

In a somewhat similar way, Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is currently playing to the domestic Brexiter gallery by insisting that there can be no significant liberalisation of immigration visas as part of a UK-India trade deal, falsely linking this with delivering Brexit by equating any liberalisation that might happen with freedom of movement. But the reality is that either she will backtrack on this or there will most likely be no trade deal, or a much more limited one. Either way, it is a further illustration of Brexiter myopia that trade policy, supposedly emblematic of Global Britain’s new Brexit freedoms, should be subordinated to the domestic politics of anti-immigration sentiment (it also, of course, illustrates the pervasive tensions of globalism and localism in the entire Brexit prospectus). Those same tensions are in evidence in the UK’s plan to join CPTPP.

It may seem as if, and as she claims it to be, Badenoch’s approach to trade deals marks a departure from that of doing quick deals on any terms, as happened with the Australia and New Zealand Free Trade Agreements that Liz Truss negotiated when Trade Secretary. But it is actually a variant of the same thing. Both are ways of using international trade policy not for international trade but for the domestic purpose of showing that Brexit is delivering ‘what the people voted for’ and, in the process, ignoring what has to be conceded, whether in terms of market access, product standards or immigration liberalisation, to obtain them.

In other words, they both maintain the Brexiter fantasy of sovereign independence by ignoring the realities of the limits and constraints to it. But the world doesn’t bend to Brexit, and can’t be monstered, as British politics has been, by the battering ram of ‘will of the people’ rhetoric. Hence, in trade policy as more generally, Brexit Britain exhibits the disconnect between domestic and international policy that Lammy identifies as needing rectification.

When truth becomes treachery

The last six years have been littered with examples of the same basic issue, but its ongoing salience can be illustrated by two news stories this week, both from Bloomberg. One discusses the recent collapse of Britishvolt, pointing to the way it illustrates the lack of realism of the Brexit “dream of independence in an interdependent world”. The other concerns the way that the UK is trapped between the two economic blocs of the EU and the US in their growing trade dispute over environmental subsidies. An outsider to both, all the British government can do is make representations that are unlikely to be heeded. Alone, and as in its Brexit negotiations with the EU, Britain is just too small to have much voice in what happens, for all that it may be deeply affected.

Again what is so dangerous for Britain is the internally-focussed, cult-like quality that Brexiters have brought from their campaign to leave the EU and have now installed in government and political discourse. It’s not just that this has enfeebled Britain. It’s also that, reading the previous paragraph, they would undoubtedly sneer that these are just stories from Bloomberg, which ‘has always been part of the remain establishment’ (just as they would say of almost very media outlet save the Telegraph and GB News). No doubt, too, they would depict mentioning such stories as ‘talking the country down’. In other words, not only does Brexit do harm to Britain, it also renders discussion of that harm impossible. So whatever problems Brexit creates can’t be treated as problems to be solved, because even to identify them as problems is illegitimate.

In a similar way, the CBI, which this week pleaded with the government not to proceed with the “legislative chaos” of the widely criticised Retained EU Law Bill, is routinely dismissed by Brexiters as the remainer voice of the ‘big business elite’ (one peculiar byway of the Brexiter mindset is the ingrained fantasy that Brexit favours small businesses – in fact, they have been hardest hit by it). Iain Duncan Smith even linked the CBI to appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s. The same kind of treatment is meted out to businesses, thinks tanks, academics, civil servants or anyone else who raises concerns about the impact of Brexit, let alone about the wisdom of the entire project.

So this is the nasty little knot that Brexiters have created. It consists of the linkage a denial of the reality of international interdependencies in foreign policy with a narrative of treachery and betrayal about domestic voices who insist on this reality. The consequence of that linkage is not just to make domestic politics toxic, and international relations both fractious and ineffective, but to make any viable domestic economic or industrial strategy impossible. For no such strategy can be built on lies and fantasies about national independence, or about how trade, regulation, science, agriculture, fishing, climate change mitigation, migration, education etc. actually work in reality.

A first step in the right direction

It’s because Lammy’s speech can be read as an attempt – perhaps the first high-profile attempt from an active politician there has been since Brexit – to untie that knot that I think it is an important speech, and is a cause for a degree of optimism. It is also consistent with the gradually emerging public view that Brexit has been a mistake and consequent growing support for closer relationships with the EU. Of course it still operates within the political constraints, both genuine and self-imposed, on Labour’s capacity to critique, let alone undo, Brexit. But, at the very least, it shows that within the Labour Party there is some serious thinking going on about post-Brexit Britain.

It's a Gordian knot that has been tied so tightly and comprehensively around the throat of the body politic that it can’t be slashed at a stroke. As I’m probably becoming quite boring in repeatedly saying, undoing the damage of Brexit is going to be a very long haul, a marathon not a sprint. But, by the same token, I don’t suppose many would accuse me of being prone to undue optimism. And I do think that the Lammy speech is a hopeful development. If it is still relatively timid in its critique of Brexit, that only shows how comprehensively Brexit has poisoned political discourse, making even timidity difficult, at least for those who aspire to govern. It’s certainly not the last step in the right direction but it may well be the first and, as the saying goes, the longest journey starts with a single step.

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Inside the industry: Should electric cars be taxed by efficiency?

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Jaguar I Pace S front quarter tracking 2018
Rated at 360Wh per mile, the ageing Jaguar I-Pace is slightly less efficient than the Rolls-Royce Spectre
Electric SUVs typically consume more energy per mile than equivalent saloons

As the Government ponders how to tax electric cars, I’m surprised by how little debate is being directed at rewarding efficiency – a glaring omission, considering the industry’s focus (driven in part by customer demand) on prioritising both bigger and higher-riding cars, which in both cases are typically more profitable but more consumptive.

Why is this important? Achieving zero tailpipe emissions is merely a step in the right direction until our vehicles are powered entirely by green energy. Pretty obviously, burning coal to create the electricity to move a car creates large amounts of CO2, whereas using electricity from a wind turbine doesn’t. At the risk of forcing a utilitarian agenda, you might also argue that we should be seeking to conserve the energy that we create regardless of its source, too.

It’s why for now EVs make more sense in renewable-loving Norway than coal-dependent Poland or China; and why the UK, a mid-table performer for CO2 output from its energy generation in European terms, must remain relentlessly focused on investing in renewable energy if its push towards the 2030 EV mandate isn’t to be contradictory.

Just how unequal same-sized electric cars can be is highlighted by EV Database, using real-world data. While the Tesla Model 3 (a very efficient saloon) uses 245Wh of electricity per mile on average, the Toyota bZ4X (a decently efficient SUV) consumes 312Wh per mile.

While battery technology most likely plays a part, that difference of more than a quarter is largely down to aerodynamics and weight, and to my mind is reason enough for legislators to incentivise slipperier,more svelte shapes.

That argument only snowballs if you look at the efficiency of some of the bigger EVs on sale, too. The BMW iX uses 351Wh per mile, the Mercedes-Benz EQS SUV 361Wh per mile and the Volvo EX90 375Wh per mile.

Fully laden and utilising every inch of their girth, they might be able to make a case for being nearly 50% less efficient than the Model 3, but we all know how rarely cars of any size are used to full capacity.

Highlighting again the benefits of shape, it’s also notable that the Rolls-Royce Spectre coupé comes in at 351Wh per mile. It’s hardly a model of restraint, yet it’s better than even the (admittedly quite old) Jaguar I-Pace, which consumes 360Wh per mile.

Luxury (and therefore the price) is less the enemy of efficiency than our obsession with SUVs, it seems, although it’s likely that the combination of the two represents the worst-case scenario.

The premise of taxing less efficient cars has underpinned road tax for ICE cars for many years, and it should do so again into the electric era.

Left to their own capitalist devices, humans will usually strive to have more than they need. It’s the legislators’ jobs to encourage better decisions and penalise those who don’t heed them.

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10 days ago
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Wyoming Republicans take a stand, want to ban electric cars

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Pilot and Index Peaks and the Beartooth Highway, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road on the border of Montana and Wyoming.

Enlarge (credit: Greg Vaughn/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Legislators of the nation's least-populous state are taking a brave stand against modernity and climate action. They're sponsoring SJ0004, "Phasing out new electric vehicle sales by 2035," an uncomplicated bill that expresses the state's goal to phase out sales of new EVs by 2035 and asks Wyoming's industries and citizens to do their civic duty in resisting the EV. Copies of the resolution would be sent to the White House, leaders in Congress, and the governor of California.

The motivation, according to the bill's preamble, is that the oil and gas industry is important to the state, a state with fewer than 600,000 residents. Wyoming is proud of its oil and gas industry, and that gas—here presumably meaning "gasoline" and not the natural gas referred to in the bill's early sentences—powers vehicles that drive on the state's vast stretches of highway.

The bill's authors think Wyoming's interstate network is too desolate for electric vehicles, particularly since there is no existing EV charging infrastructure, they claim.

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11 days ago
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Under the skin: the resurgence of the fuel cell electric car

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BMW iX5 hydrogen bonnet open
The hydrogen-powered BMW iX5 will be used as a tech demonstrator
It looked like the dawn of FCEVs was long gone, but there's more happening than you might think

As the will-it-won’t it story of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) continues to ramble on, BMW and Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK both announced new plans for FCEVs in early December. 

BMW has started producing a limited run of its iX5 Hydrogen which will be used as technology demonstrators. A consortium led by Toyota Manufacturing is starting work on a project funded by the UK government via the Advanced Propulsion Centre, to migrate the second generation fuel cell system (as used in the Toyota Mirai) into a Toyota Hilux pickup. 

Since the global industry set out in the late 1990s to make fuel cell vehicles more or less mainstream by 2004, then signally failed, technology has moved on a lot. The obvious thing is the arrival and fast maturing of automotive scale lithium battery systems which in only a couple of decades took BEVs from the level of dodgy prototypes to a common sight on the roads. We’ve also seen how hybrids have been stretched well beyond the original Toyota Prius to range extended vehicles (series hybrids) and plug-in hybrids. 

Once FCEVs had moved beyond the early prototype stage, they essentially became series hybrids but with hydrogen fuel cells to provide a steady stream of electrical power instead of an engine and a small battery to provide the punch needed for acceleration. 

The battery also stores energy from regenerative braking in the same way as other electrified vehicles. What’s also changed since those early days is that along with the battery technology, electric drivetrains are now well established in the commercial domain. In the BMW’s case, the drivetrain is taken from the fifth generation eDrive technology used in its BEVs and plug-in cars. 

The other big change since those early days of FCEVs is the manufacture of the fuel cell stacks comprising hundreds of small fuel cells (the equivalent of battery cells in a battery pack). One of the hurdles which had to be overcome was that early on, stacks had to be hand-assembled but while the FCEV story may appear to have gone quiet, plenty of work has been continuing in the background. 

The stacking of cells in the BMW stack is now fully automated and after that’s done, it’s compressed and inserted into a cast aluminium housing. The pressure plate which separately carries the hydrogen and oxygen to the stack is made from cast plastic and light alloy casting. 

BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell system produces 125kW and powertrain, 369bhp. There are two hydrogen tanks carrying 6kg of compressed hydrogen which can be refilled at the pump in three to four minutes giving a range of 311 miles. 

While it may have looked as though little was happening in the field of FCEVs, the work has continued and the expertise in fuel cell design grown. As well as BMW partnering with FCEV veteran Toyota on fuel cell development, Honda and GM are also partners and Mercedes-Benz maintains its links with the doyen of fuel cell development, the Canadian Company, Ballard Power Systems.

Hyrodgen refuelling - just as quick as petrol

In California, hydrogen filling stations are serving more than 8,000 FCEVs. The average time taken to fuel with 5kg of hydrogen is just over three minutes and the best is 2.5 minutes, putting hydrogen refuelling times in the real world on a par with petrol or diesel.

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11 days ago
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How do we solve antibiotic resistance?

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Antibiotic resistance threatens to take us back to a time before penicillin when the majority of deaths were caused by infections. What are we doing to solve the crisis?
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13 days ago
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Ancient Roman concrete could self-heal thanks to “hot mixing” with quicklime

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The Privernum archeological area

Enlarge / A new analysis of ancient Roman concrete samples from the Privernum site yields fresh insights into manufacturing process. (credit: MIT)

The famous Pantheon in Rome boasts the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome—an architectural marvel that has endured for millennia, thanks to the incredible durability of ancient Roman concrete. For decades, scientists have been trying to determine precisely what makes the material so durable. A new analysis of samples taken from the concrete walls of the Privernum archaeological site near Rome has yielded insights into those elusive manufacturing secrets. It seems the Romans employed "hot mixing" with quicklime, among other strategies, that gave the material self-healing functionality, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances.

As we've reported previously, like today's Portland cement (a basic ingredient of modern concrete), ancient Roman concrete was basically a mix of a semi-liquid mortar and aggregate. Portland cement is typically made by heating limestone and clay (as well as sandstone, ash, chalk, and iron) in a kiln. The resulting clinker is then ground into a fine powder, with just a touch of added gypsum—the better to achieve a smooth, flat surface. But the aggregate used to make Roman concrete was made up of fist-sized pieces of stone or bricks.

In his treatise De architectura (circa 30 CE), the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius wrote about how to build concrete walls for funerary structures that could endure for a long time without falling into ruins. He recommended the walls be at least two feet thick, made of either "squared red stone or of brick or lava laid in courses." The brick or volcanic rock aggregate should be bound with mortar composed of hydrated lime and porous fragments of glass and crystals from volcanic eruptions (known as volcanic tephra).

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20 days ago
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