Cement, a popular binding material, is a very important civil engineering material. This article concerns the physical and chemical properties of cement, as well as the methods to test cement properties.

Properties of Cement

Physical Properties of Cement

Different blends of cement used in construction are characterized by their physical properties. Some key parameters control the quality of cement. The physical properties of good cement are based on:

  • Fineness of cement
  • Soundness
  • Consistency
  • Strength
  • Setting time
  • Heat of hydration
  • Loss of ignition
  • Bulk density
  • Specific gravity (Relative density)

 These physical properties are discussed in details in the following segment. Also, you will find the test names associated with these physical properties.

Fineness of Cement

The size of the particles of the cement is its fineness. The required fineness of good cement is achieved through grinding the clinker in the last step of cement production process. As hydration rate of cement is directly related to the cement particle size, fineness of cement is very important.

Soundness of Cement

Soundness refers to the ability of cement to not shrink upon hardening. Good quality cement retains its volume after setting without delayed expansion, which is caused by excessive free lime and magnesia.


Unsoundness of cement may appear after several years, so tests for ensuring soundness must be able to determine that potential.

  • Le Chatelier Test
    This method, done by using Le Chatelier Apparatus, tests the expansion of cement due to lime. Cement paste (normal consistency) is taken between glass slides and submerged in water for 24 hours at 20+1°C. It is taken out to measure the distance between the indicators and then returned under water, brought to boil in 25-30 mins and boiled for an hour. After cooling the device, the distance between indicator points is measured again. In a good quality cement, the distance should not exceed 10 mm.
  • Autoclave Test
    Cement paste (of normal consistency) is placed in an autoclave (high-pressure steam vessel) and slowly brought to 2.03 MPa, and then kept there for 3 hours. The change in length of the specimen (after gradually bringing the autoclave to room temperature and pressure) is measured and expressed in percentage. The requirement for good quality cement is a maximum of 0.80% autoclave expansion.
    Standard autoclave test: AASHTO T 107 and ASTM C 151: Autoclave Expansion of Portland Cement.

Consistency of Cement

The ability of cement paste to flow is consistency.

It is measured by Vicat Test.

In Vicat Test Cement paste of normal consistency is taken in the Vicat Apparatus. The plunger of the apparatus is brought down to touch the top surface of the cement. The plunger will penetrate the cement up to a certain depth depending on the consistency. A cement is said to have a normal consistency when the plunger penetrates 10±1 mm.

Strength of Cement

Three types of strength of cement are measured – compressive, tensile and flexural. Various factors affect the strength, such as water-cement ratio, cement-fine aggregate ratio, curing conditions, size and shape of a specimen, the manner of molding and mixing, loading conditions and age. While testing the strength, the following should be considered:

  • Cement mortar strength and cement concrete strength are not directly related. Cement strength is merely a quality control measure.
  • The tests of strength are performed on cement mortar mix, not on cement paste.
  • Cement gains strength over time, so the specific time of performing the test should be mentioned.

Compressive Strength

It is the most common strength test. A test specimen (50mm) is taken and subjected to a compressive load until failure. The loading sequence must be within 20 seconds and 80 seconds.

Standard tests:

  1. AASHTO T 106 and ASTM C 109: Compressive Strength of Hydraulic Cement Mortars (Using 50-mm or 2-in. Cube Specimens)
  2. ASTM C 349: Compressive Strength of Hydraulic Cement Mortars (Using Portions of Prisms Broken in Flexure)

Tensile strength

Though this test used to be common during the early years of cement production, now it does not offer any useful information about the properties of cement.

Flexural strength

This is actually a measure of tensile strength in bending. The test is performed in a 40 x40 x 160 mm cement mortar beam, which is loaded at its center point until failure.

Standard test:

  1. ASTM C 348: Flexural Strength of Hydraulic Cement Mortars

Setting Time of Cement

Cement sets and hardens when water is added. This setting time can vary depending on multiple factors, such as fineness of cement, cement-water ratio, chemical content, and admixtures. Cement used in construction should have an initial setting time that is not too low and a final setting time not too high. Hence, two setting times are measured:

  • Initial set: When the paste begins to stiffen noticeably (typically occurs within 30-45 minutes)
  • Final set: When the cement hardens, being able to sustain some load (occurs below 10 hours)

Again, setting time can also be an indicator of hydration rate.

Standard Tests:

  1. AASHTO T 131 and ASTM C 191: Time of Setting of Hydraulic Cement by Vicat Needle
  2. AASHTO T 154: Time of Setting of Hydraulic Cement by Gillmore Needles
  3. ASTM C 266: Time of Setting of Hydraulic-Cement Paste by Gillmore Needles

Heat of Hydration

When water is added to cement, the reaction that takes place is called hydration. Hydration generates heat, which can affect the quality of the cement and also be beneficial in maintaining curing temperature during cold weather. On the other hand, when heat generation is high, especially in large structures, it may cause undesired stress. The heat of hydration is affected most by C3S and C3A present in cement, and also by water-cement ratio, fineness and curing temperature. The heat of hydration of Portland cement is calculated by determining the difference between the dry and the partially hydrated cement (obtained by comparing these at 7th and 28th days).

Standard Test:

ASTM C 186: Heat of Hydration of Hydraulic Cement

Loss of Ignition

Heating a cement sample at 900 - 1000°C (that is, until a constant weight is obtained) causes weight loss. This loss of weight upon heating is calculated as loss of ignition. Improper and prolonged storage or adulteration during transport or transfer may lead to pre-hydration and carbonation, both of which might be indicated by increased loss of ignition.

Standard Test:

AASHTO T 105 and ASTM C 114: Chemical Analysis of Hydraulic Cement

Bulk density

When cement is mixed with water, the water replaces areas where there would normally be air. Because of that, the bulk density of cement is not very important. Cement has a varying range of density depending on the cement composition percentage. The density of cement may be anywhere from 62 to 78 pounds per cubic foot.

Specific Gravity (Relative Density)

Specific gravity is generally used in mixture proportioning calculations. Portland cement has a specific gravity of 3.15, but other types of cement (for example, portland-blast-furnace-slag and portland-pozzolan cement) may have specific gravities of about 2.90.

Standard Test:

AASHTO T 133 and ASTM C 188: Density of Hydraulic Cement

Chemical Properties of Cement

The raw materials for cement production are limestone (calcium), sand or clay (silicon), bauxite (aluminum) and iron ore, and may include shells, chalk, marl, shale, clay, blast furnace slag, slate. Chemical analysis of cement raw materials provides insight into the chemical properties of cement.

  1. Tricalcium aluminate (C3A)
    Low content of C3A makes the cement sulfate-resistant. Gypsum reduces the hydration of C3A, which liberates a lot of heat in the early stages of hydration. C3A does not provide any more than a little amount of strength.
    Type I cement: contains up to 3.5% SO3 (in cement having more than 8% C3A)
    Type II cement: contains up to 3% SO3 (in cement having less than 8% C3A)
  2. Tricalcium silicate (C3S)
    C3S causes rapid hydration as well as hardening and is responsible for the cement’s early strength gain an initial setting.
  3. Dicalcium silicate (C2S)
    As opposed to tricalcium silicate, which helps early strength gain, dicalcium silicate in cement helps the strength gain after one week.
  4. Ferrite (C4AF)
    Ferrite is a fluxing agent. It reduces the melting temperature of the raw materials in the kiln from 3,000°F to 2,600°F. Though it hydrates rapidly, it does not contribute much to the strength of the cement.
  5. Magnesia (MgO)
    The manufacturing process of Portland cement uses magnesia as a raw material in dry process plants. An excess amount of magnesia may make the cement unsound and expansive, but a little amount of it can add strength to the cement. Production of MgO-based cement also causes less CO2 emission. All cement is limited to a content of 6% MgO.
  6. Sulphur trioxide
    Sulfur trioxide in excess amount can make cement unsound.
  7. Iron oxide/ Ferric oxide
    Aside from adding strength and hardness, iron oxide or ferric oxide is mainly responsible for the color of the cement.
  8. Alkalis
    The amounts of potassium oxide (K2O) and sodium oxide (Na2O) determine the alkali content of the cement. Cement containing large amounts of alkali can cause some difficulty in regulating the setting time of cement. Low alkali cement, when used with calcium chloride in concrete, can cause discoloration. In slag-lime cement, ground granulated blast furnace slag is not hydraulic on its own but is "activated" by addition of alkalis. There is an optional limit in total alkali content of 0.60%, calculated by the equation Na2O + 0.658 K2O.
  9. Free lime
    Free lime, which is sometimes present in cement, may cause expansion.
  10. Silica fumes
    Silica fume is added to cement concrete in order to improve a variety of properties, especially compressive strength, abrasion resistance and bond strength. Though setting time is prolonged by the addition of silica fume, it can grant exceptionally high strength. Hence, Portland cement containing 5-20% silica fume is usually produced for Portland cement projects that require high strength.
  11. Alumina
    Cement containing high alumina has the ability to withstand frigid temperatures since alumina is chemical-resistant. It also quickens the setting but weakens the cement.