Magnesium sulfate salts and historic building materials: experimental simulation of limestone flaking by relative humidity cycling and crystallization of salts


  • P. Lopez-Arce The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles
  • E. Doehne The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles
  • W. Martin English Heritage, London
  • S. Pinchin English Heritage, London



Magnesium sulfate, Limestone, flaking, salt decay, humidity cycling


Magnesium sulfate salts often result from the combination of incompatible construction materials, such as stone or mortar with high magnesium content and sulfates from adjacent mortars or polluted air. When combined with a source of moisture, these materials react to form soluble salts, often leading to significant damage by flaking of the stone, as the magnesium sulfate responds to fluctuating environmental conditions. Several laboratory experiments were performed to reproduce surface flaking on different types of limestone from Spain and the UK to evaluate the effects of humidity cycling on the damage of stone by salt crystallization. The two salt solutions used for the experiments were a single salt of magnesium sulfate and a mixture of magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate and sodium chloride, a typical salt mixture found in damaged stone at the site of Howden Minster (UK). A climate chamber with precise and programmable temperature and humidity control was used to test the hypothesis that salt damage in the stone can be readily caused by humidity fluctuations. Damage was monitored using Linear Variable Differential Transformer (LVDT), which measure transducers displacement by dimensional change on the order of microns. In addition, Ion Chromatography, Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (ESEM-EDX) and X-ray Diffraction analyses (XRD) were also carried out to analyze salt behavior. Damage by flaking took place in two types of magnesian limestone cubes impregnated with the salt mixture, from Cadeby quarry and York Minster, apparently by deliquescent salts of low equilibrium relative humidity (RHeq), while the rest of the samples developed a salt crust over the surface, but no damage was observed in the stone. It is important to verify hypotheses developed from field observations with laboratory experiments. By combining both field and laboratory data, a clearer understanding the different mechanisms of decay and associated weathering types under different environmental conditions can be obtained.


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How to Cite

Lopez-Arce, P., Doehne, E., Martin, W., & Pinchin, S. (2008). Magnesium sulfate salts and historic building materials: experimental simulation of limestone flaking by relative humidity cycling and crystallization of salts. Materiales De Construcción, 58(289-290), 125–142.



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