The Unsinkable Seabiscuit

Martin Marietta's Lightweight Well Cement Propels Concrete Canoe Team

In an instant, she could crack and it would all be over. Months of work, lost. Failure.

It was a perilous drive – 200 miles deep into the heart of Pennsylvania – and with every slight jolt and unexpected bump along the way, the mood grew increasingly tense.

When she emerged from the journey unscathed, her designers took a collective breath; she had passed her first test. But another question lingered: Would she race?

The early April sun was warm over Penn State University, but the trees surrounding nearby Lake Perez were still barren and the water temperature hovered at a brisk 40 degrees.

Lifeguards and safety monitors with the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, were strategically placed and preached the proper steps to take should any of the boats sink.

Still, Craig Lampmann was confident.

His boat, the lightest at the competition, had been composed mainly of Martin Marietta’s lightweight well cement.

“We believed the canoe would float,” he says. “Our biggest concern was whether it would hold together without developing any cracks. We also had a slight fear it would be more maneuverable than our race team was used to.”

Members of the University of Maryland's Concrete Canoe Team (center) race at Penn State University.

The canoe, the University of Maryland’s entry into the ASCE’s 2015 Concrete Canoe Competition, was designed and built by 65 student volunteers over 3,600 hours. She was christened Seabiscuit in honor of the race horse whose victory over War Admiral at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course in 1938 is widely regarded as one of the most exciting in the history of the sport.

Like the equine, Seabiscuit the canoe is a lighter specimen, but still quite heavy.

Most canoes are designed for ease and comfort. The Old Town Canoe Company, for example, offers a 33-pound boat made of composite material so light that “just about anyone can get it on and off the car top.”

Seabiscuit is not that canoe.

At 18 feet, 6 inches long and 195 pounds, she has as much blood and sweat in her hull as she does pre-stressed cable and cement. Depending upon what you drive, she’d crush your car top.

Ease and comfort aren’t in her DNA and that’s the challenge. The ASCE’s competition forces college students from across the country to forge a buoyant, attractive, race-worthy canoe from mainly cementitious materials.

The students’ work is then judged on several elements, from race results to a paper detailing their steps from start to finish.

“There are extensive rules,” says Lampmann, a northern New Jersey native who graduated in May with a degree in civil engineering. “They change a bit each year, from restrictions on materials to the design and what types of finish you’re allowed to use.”

Lampmann, who first volunteered with the concrete canoe team as a freshman and took over this year as a project co-manager, said he came across Martin Marietta after turning to past team leaders for advice.

“Our project manager from last year had taken a tour of a Schlumberger oil site and she heard about the lightweight cement they were using, which I believe was offered by TXI at the time,” Lampmann says. “We got a sampling, did some tests and really liked it.”

When Lampmann and his team reached out to get more of the product, they found Rodney Macon, an experienced energy services manager based in Houston, Texas, who entered the Martin Marietta family when Texas Industries, Inc., was acquired last year.

Explaining why the lightweight cement – the lightest on the market to his knowledge – works as it does is difficult, but Macon says it essentially boils down to its primary ingredient, a type of shale that is easily mined at the Company’s Midlothian Cement Plant in Midlothian, Texas.

“When you send it through a kiln, the shale is exposed to a high heat, which drives the moisture off and forces it to bloat, creating something of a honeycomb effect that makes it less dense,” Macon says. “Standard Portland Cement weighs about 100 pounds per cubic foot and lightweight cement weighs about 75 pounds per cubic foot. It’s a significant weight savings, which is why it’s used almost exclusively in the oil fields.”

After speaking with Lampmann and learning the details of the competition, Macon provided the Maryland team with 500 pounds of lightweight cement at no cost and covered the shipping fees.

The donation was welcomed.

“You need a lightweight cement, but it has to be strong enough. It’s about finding the right balance,” Lampmann says. “The lightweight cement gives us an advantage because it’s just as strong as Portland Cement, but allows us to cut down our unit weight.”

The result?

Seabiscuit took top honors at the spring regionals in Penn State and moved on to represent the Mid-Atlantic Student Conference in the nationals at South Carolina’s Clemson University.

Macon, who also donated 150 pounds of the cement to the concrete canoe team at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says he enjoyed speaking with the students about their work and the Company’s products and is pleased Seabiscuit performed so well.

“I’m impressed with these young people. They’re professional and so polite,” Macon says. “I had plenty of folks who helped me out when I was young and to give back in a way that helps today’s youth as they’re starting their working lives is rewarding.”

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