The paper was “Application of Water Jet Cutting Technology to Cement Grouts and Concrete,” by L. McCurrich and B. Browne of Taylor Woodrow in the UK. The company had looked at the use of waterjets as a means for cutting concrete, either for demolition or inserting the grooves used, for example on highways for “rumble” strips. They concluded that such a tool would have to operate at a pressure of 54,000 psi, and using 3 jets in a cutting head, would require a power demand of around 550 hp. To quote from the paper:
This scale of research to develop a practicable cutting tool would be at least one hundred thousand English pounds. (Then around $250,000). No single firm involved in demolition is likely to be able to afford this sum on a speculative development of this nature, and if a commercially viable proposition can be shown to be likely, funds will have to come from a central Government or Trade Association body.Jake Frank and I visited the company in London after the conference was over, and the authors were explicit in their views that a waterjet tool would be too expensive for any individual company to purchase for use in concrete work. Skip forward a few years and I was at the Liquid Waste Haulers Show in Nashville TN. (This became the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International and this year is, I gather, the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show and will be in Indianapolis next month). A friend of mine was chatting with me on his booth, when a salesman come over. He suggested I join him while we wandered over to the sales table where the customer happily signed an order for a $250,000 unit that would leave the show and be used for the hydro-demolition of concrete.
Times had certainly changed in the intervening years, and I rather suspect that the estimate that the two authors had given for the project development costs were exceeded as both the Gas Research Institute (now the Gas Technology Institute) and the Electric Power Research Institute, as well as the National Science Foundation, helped to develop technologies, both through funding research and in encouraging companies to develop the needed tools for the industry that has since grown to use it. Not that the research effort was limited to the United States.
By the time of the 2nd ISJCT in Cambridge, two years after that first paper, there were three papers dealing with studies on concrete cutting. These included studies carried out in the United States, Japan, and Canada. There were two drivers to this growth in effort, despite the pessimism of the original paper, the first being the size of the market. McCurrich and Browne had pointed out that back in 1970 the UK was emplacing about 1 ton of cement for each inhabitant of the nation, much of which would later have to be demolished or repaired. One of the other drivers was that, in contrast to rock and other materials that were being used as targets, cement properties can, to a degree, be controlled by the manufacturer so that the effect of changing concrete properties on the cutting performance could also be established.
The work was, however, constrained to the laboratory for these studies at that time and focused on jet slotting of the concrete at pressures ranging up to 60,000 psi.
There was only one paper on concrete cutting at the Third ISJCT, and that dealt with cutting underwater, which at pressures of 60,000 psi jet pressure and shallow depth appeared to be little different to cutting in air, where the nozzle was held close to the target surface.
The fourth ISJCT was held in Canterbury, UK and marked a change in emphasis for the research on concrete removal. The teams reporting differed from those of the earlier papers, and now included funding from NSF. The emphasis for the three papers was also more focused on concrete demolition, using pulsed waterjet systems in two cases and on a portable system for removing concrete and asphalt for utility repair in the third.
The idea of using a pulsed jet to shatter concrete due to the impact of the jet on the surface, the rapid generation and penetration of cracks from that impact, and the consequent rupture of a block into pieces had a number of advantages. Tools could be built with relatively simple charging mechanisms (the simplest of which – that came later from Germany – used a small cartridge similar to a shotgun shell to generate the pressure) and without the noise and dust generation of impact breakers. Unfortunately, as these tools were developed over the subsequent years, a consistent problem arose for the devices being developed. This was that the pulse that generated the damage had to be repeated relatively rapidly if it were to be able to match the performance of the impact breaker. This required that the pressure chamber holding the water had to be rapidly refilled, and this in turn required a valve between the water supply and that chamber. The valve then had to withstand the repeated high-pressure cycles each time that the device fired. This turned out to be a bigger problem than had been anticipated, and there were several efforts to develop the pulsed waterjet concrete breaker that foundered because of the complexity of the problem.
It was only at the 5th Conference, held in Hanover in Germany, that the first paper appeared noting the benefits of removing damaged concrete. Concurrently the paper that discussed this also described field trials carried out in Chicago, demonstrating that the waterjetting method was able to remove damaged surface concrete preferentially, and to a controlled depth at a rate more than twice that of existing jack hammers, while using roughly the same amount of power. It had taken ten years to reach this point, which presaged the development of the hydro-demolition industry, although it took several more years and the interest of larger companies before the technology finally took off.
Unfortunately the work on pulsed-jet concrete demolition which was still ongoing at the 5th ISJCT did not lead to a commercial product, for the reasons cited above, while concrete trenching and more detailed contour cutting, although developed by the this conference into a field portable device, also was later subsumed into the overall development of hydro-demolition.
These developments took much more money that the original authors had foreseen, but the final devices put into the field ran at lower pressures and required less power than those original experiments had anticipated. It also took a number of years for the capabilities of the technical equipment to reach to capabilities needed to field the tools that are now ubiquitous.