Building Materials

Building the future with safer, durable, greener and more sustainable construction materials

Investigate building materials at multiple length scales and modalities and link the multi-scale information. From the material’s processing over its structure and properties up to its performance in engineering applications – from concrete, steel, wood, brick and stone to building composites – make use of a whole range of microscopy solutions.

Understand the processing and structure of building materials

Thinking about concrete as the most widely used material in human history: what if you could minimize cracks that are still a major source of reduced durability and financial loss? Apply microscopy techniques to mitigate this problem and move forward with the improvement of properties and performance, developing innovations such as self-healing concrete.

  • Processing: Study hydration of cement with Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and 4D X-ray microscopes (XRM).
  • Structure: Observe and quantify the produced structures, find out how they relate to properties, conduct failure analysis in building materials with the 3D submicron imaging capabilities of ZEISS XRM.
  • Properties and Performance: Investigate or predict how a novel building material, like self-healing concrete, will perform in a real-world application, combine multiple modalities including Light Microscopes (LM), SEM and XRM from ZEISS through correlative microscopy.

Fascinating Applications in Concrete Analysis

Enlarge the images below to learn more about the cement and concrete samples.

Quantitative volumetric analysis of a steel reinforced concrete specimen using X-ray microscopy. Voids are rendered in purple. The rendering corresponds to a smaller volume imaged out of a large 350 x 100 x 50 mm concrete dogbone test specimen.
Cross-sectional view of a concrete sample scanned at 0.8 μm/voxel resolution. Various phases of concrete can be observed in distinct contrast. Finer interfacial spacing between the large particles and aggregate are also be discerned.
Achieve superior contrast and image quality for rapid surface characterization of cement sample. Light microscopy image of a cement sample observed using the ZEISS Axio Imager 2.

Study the Processing of Building Materials

With Scanning Electron Microscopes

Analyze building materials like cement, the composition, shape and morphology of its compounds, either dry or in a hydrated state with ZEISS SEMs, which are suited     not only to high vacuum experiments but also to environmental conditions.

  • Control the sample conditions and therefore the sample humidity by varying the temperature, pressure, and atmospheric gases in the SEM chamber. 
  • Determine various hydration states, work at low or extremely low vacuum (Variable Pressure mode (VP)) instead of high  vacuum, add water vapor, and cool or heat your sample on a dedicated stage.
  • Apply pressures of up to 3000 Pa and combine them with wet or dry mode enabling you to image concrete samples in a range of temperatures, pressures, and humidity conditions.
  • Reveal hydration mechanisms at high resolution using a coolstage.
  • At the same time, achieve high resolution, high contrast images with minimal sample preparation using detectors tailored for varying conditions.
Left image at 667 Pa shows sample equilibrium with the local atmosphere.
In the right image, the pressure is increased to 955 Pa causing deposition of liquid water on the sample - hydration.
Coal is the predominant energy source used in kilns in the production of cement. Scanning electron microscopes deliver valuable insights on the microstructure of a sulphur rich coal.
Chemically distinct categories of coal (sulphur-rich and sulphur-poor) can be created in ZEISS Mineralogic. The amount of sulphur present within a coal has a direct bearing on its calorific value (the amount of energy that can be derived from its burning).

Automated mineralogical and chemical analysis on cement performed using scanning electron microscopy. Identify distribution of minerals in cement and concrete samples.

Image of calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2 tabular). The presence in concrete is indicative of the possibility of future problems due to sulfurization.

Image of ettringite (acicular). The presence in concrete is indicative of the possibility of future problems due to sulfurization.

Observe and Quantify the Structure of Building Materials

With X-ray Microscopes

Imagine being able to investigate the root causes of cracking, such as lack of moisture, excess heat generation during the early stages of curing, mechanical stress, and internal chemical origins, such as rebar corrosion, in longer-term cracking and overcome these well-known limitations? Characterize highly varying 3D topologies and crack networks non-destructively. Image in 3D at sub-micron resolutions. Benefit from 3D X-ray microscopy for fast imaging of intact samples.

  • Characterize large representative samples and zoom into region of interest non-destructively at extremely high resolution using the Resolution-at-a-Distance mode. 
  • Image emerging hairline fractures and entire 3D crack networks in a single scan at spatial resolution of up to 500 nm. 
  • Distinguish different phases within building materials with superior contrast using highly sensitive detectors and a variety of contrast modes. 
  • Identify fracture mechanisms in situ and in 4D using dual magnification – optical as well as geometric.

ZEISS X-ray Microscopes enable you to image large, representative-sized building materials samples providing sub-micron resolution and high contrast. Optimal 3D quantitative analysis is enabled by better contrast and the ability to resolve cracks, voids and different phases in this concrete sample.

Investigate the Properties and Performance of Building Materials

With Scanning Electron Microscopes and X-ray Microscopes

Think of further advancing self-healing concrete like researchers of the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, for whom living organisms were a role model. Inspired by their ability to repair themselves to a certain extent after being damaged, the scientists started to work with potential minerals (magnesia, bentonite clay, quicklime) used in cement that expand when cracks form. This expansion of the mineral material fills the cracks and bridges them over time. 

  • Characterize the material’s microstructure and identify the self-healing bridges formed during the healing process. 
  • Capture high-definition topographical images using SEM with low acceleration energies.
  • Identify the composition and mix of self-healing materials based on their structural pattern and formation style, including scaffolding structures, flower-like and other bridging and filling structures produced by different expansive materials during the healing process.

Self-healing minerals expansion and crack bridging network imaged with ZEISS EVO using the SE detector with a beam energy of 12 keV shows flower-like hydromagnesite structures had formed.

Fibrous cellular microstructure of wood imaged using SEM (ZEISS Crossbeam).  Imaged courtesy of Todd Simpson, Western University, Canada.

X-ray microscopy images of poplar wood reveals the 3D microstructure showing in high detail the cellular network within wood. The high contrast enables easy segmentation of 3D data and full quantitative characterization. 

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Recommended Microscope Systems

ZEISS Axioscope for Materials

The Axioscope upright light microscope was designed specifically to meet the most common optical imaging requirements of materials laboratories. Axioscope is the right choice if your routine inspection tasks place high demands on usability, reproducibility and automation – and you also need advanced optical microscopy for materials analysis and metallography. Being a complete material laboratory solution, Axioscope is also the first choice from an economic point of view.

ZEISS Axioscope for Materials

ZEISS Xradia CrystalCT

ZEISS Xradia CrystalCT is your ground-breaking microCT for unlocking the crystallographic and microstructural secrets of your samples. It uniquely augments the powerful technique of computed tomography with the ability to reveal crystallographic grain microstructures, transforming the way polycrystalline materials (such as metals, additive manufacturing, ceramics, etc.) can be studied, leading to newer and deeper insights into materials research.

ZEISS Xradia CrystalCT


The instruments of the EVO family combine high performance scanning electron microscopy with an intuitive, user-friendly experience that appeals to both trained microscopists and new users. With its comprehensive range of available options, EVO can be tailored precisely to your requirements, whether you are in material sciences, or routine industrial quality assurance and failure analysis.


ZEISS Crossbeam

Combine imaging and analytical performance of a high resolution field emission scanning electron microscope (FE-SEM) with the processing ability of a next-generation focused ion beam (FIB). You may be working in a multi-user facility, or an academic or industrial lab. Take advantage of ZEISS Crossbeam’s modular platform concept and upgrade your system with growing needs, e.g. with the LaserFIB for massive material ablation. During milling, imaging or when performing 3D analytics Crossbeam will speed up your FIB applications.

ZEISS Crossbeam laser

ZEISS Atlas 5

Create comprehensive multi-scale, multi-modal images with a sample-centric correlative environment using Atlas 5. This solution extends the capacity of your ZEISS SEM, FE-SEM (field emission scanning electron microscope) or FIB-SEM (focused ion beam). Efficiently navigate and correlate images from any source, e.g. light- and X-ray microscopes. Take full advantage of high throughput and automated large area imaging. Unique workflows help you to gain a comprehensive understanding of your sample. Its modular structure lets you tailor Atlas 5 for your everyday needs in materials research.

ZEISS Atlas 5

ZEISS Advanced Reconstruction Toolbox

ZEISS Advanced Reconstruction Toolbox (ART) introduces Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven reconstruction technologies on your ZEISS Xradia 3D X-ray microscope (XRM) or microCT. A deep understanding of both X-ray physics and applications enable you to solve some of the hardest imaging challenges in new and innovative ways. Discover how speed of data acquisition and reconstruction as well as image quality are enhanced without sacrificing resolution by using OptiRecon, two variants of DeepRecon and PhaseEvolve, the unique modules of ART.

ZEISS Advanced Reconstruction Toolbox

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Speak to our microscopy experts about your challenges

Get in touch with us to learn more about the ZEISS microscopy solutions portfolio for engineering materials research. Get insights on your specific research challenges or facility, book a demo at our customer center, or get a quote. We are looking forward to hearing from you.