Aggregates are inert granular materials such as sand, gravel, or crushed stone that, along with water and portland cement, are an essential ingredient in concrete.

For a good concrete mix, aggregates need to be clean, hard, strong particles free of absorbed chemicals or coatings of clay and other fine materials that could cause the deterioration of concrete. Aggregates, which account for 60 to 75 percent of the total volume of concrete, are divided into two distinct categories--fine and coarse. Fine aggregates generally consist of natural sand or crushed stone with most particles passing through a 3/8-inch sieve. Coarse aggregates are any particles greater than 0.19 inch, but generally range between 3/8 and 1.5 inches in diameter. Gravels constitute the majority of coarse aggregate used in concrete with crushed stone making up most of the remainder.

Natural gravel and sand are usually dug or dredged from a pit, river, lake, or seabed. Crushed aggregate is produced by crushing quarry rock, boulders, cobbles, or large-size gravel. Recycled concrete is a viable source of aggregate and has been satisfactorily used in granular subbases, soil-cement, and in new concrete.

After harvesting, aggregate is processed:  crushed, screened, and washed to obtain proper cleanliness and gradation. If necessary, a benefaction process such as jigging or heavy media separation can be used to upgrade the quality. Once processed, the aggregates are handled and stored to minimize segregation and degradation and prevent contamination.

Aggregates strongly influence concrete's freshly mixed and hardened properties, mixture proportions, and economy. Consequently, selection of aggregates is an important process. Although some variation in aggregate properties is expected, characteristics that are considered include:

  • grading
  • durability
  • particle shape and surface texture
  • abrasion and skid resistance
  • unit weights and voids
  • absorption and surface moisture

Grading refers to the determination of the particle-size distribution for aggregate. Grading limits and maximum aggregate size are specified because these properties affect the amount of aggregate used as well as cement and water requirements, workability, pumpability, and durability of concrete. In general, if the water-cement ratio is chosen correctly, a wide range in grading can be used without a major effect on strength. When gap-graded aggregate are specified, certain particle sizes of aggregate are omitted from the size continuum. Gap-graded aggregate are used to obtain uniform textures in exposed aggregate concrete. Close control of mix proportions is necessary to avoid segregation.

Shape and Size Matter

Particle shape and surface texture influence the properties of freshly mixed concrete more than the properties of hardened concrete. Rough-textured, angular, and elongated particles require more water to produce workable concrete than smooth, rounded compact aggregate. Consequently, the cement content must also be increased to maintain the water-cement ratio. Generally, flat and elongated particles are avoided or are limited to about 15 percent by weight of the total aggregate. Unit-weight measures the volume that graded aggregate and the voids between them will occupy in concrete.

The void content between particles affects the amount of cement paste required for the mix. Angular aggregates increase the void content. Larger sizes of well-graded aggregate and improved grading decrease the void content. Absorption and surface moisture of aggregate are measured when selecting aggregate because the internal structure of aggregate is made up of solid material and voids that may or may not contain water. The amount of water in the concrete mixture must be adjusted to include the moisture conditions of the aggregate.
 
Abrasion and skid resistance of an aggregate are essential when the aggregate is to be used in concrete constantly subject to abrasion as in heavy-duty floors or pavements. Different minerals in the aggregate wear and polish at different rates. Harder aggregate can be selected in highly abrasive conditions to minimize wear.