Our world is constructed primarily from bricks, wood, steel, glass, and concrete. All of these substances are practical and versatile, and produced at a relatively low cost (although this cost is increasing)
But concerns are growing about the durability of these materials. It is estimated that the production of construction materials worldwide is responsible for around 5% of all human-made carbon emissions; and 20-30% of all building materials end up in the dumpster – at huge environmental cost.
So maybe it’s time to look away from the current zeitgeist of bricks, mortar and concrete and look to new horizons. This is exactly what some innovative companies are doing. Let’s look at five new sustainable materials that could be the building blocks of tomorrow:
Regular bricks are related to soil deprivation and require very hot temperatures to create them. A North Carolina company called BioMason thinks it has a good alternative in the works: bricks that mimic nature and grow at low temperatures – like how a coral reef forms.
It sounds like science fiction, but it works like this: bricks are “grown” by placing sand in rectangular molds. The mussels are then injected with bacteria; the bacteria then “twist” around the individual grains of sand. The bacteria are then fed a mixture of nutrients that stimulate the growth of calcium carbonate crystals. These crystals form hard, stone-like substances and end up being as tough as real bricks. BioMason claims that they are more environmentally friendly and use much less energy.
Cement sets in concrete and concrete is perhaps the most common building material of all – but there are problems with cement. Cement is hard but brittle under stress; and is often reinforced with steel to make it stronger. And while this cement-steel alliance has worked wonders, allowing us to build architectural marvels, the porosity of concrete often causes the steel inside to rust.
Concrete is porous because when it sets, the particles form randomly with a lot of space between them. However, that could all be about to change, thanks to a team of scientists from Rice University in Texas. These scientists have found a way to modify the molecular structure so that the formation of particles is not random. In fact, they can influence molecular structure in almost any way they want – creating shapes like cubes, spheres, and even tightly packed diamonds.
The end result is that this “programmed” cement sets stronger, tighter and protects the steel inside from rusting. If all the concrete can be programmed this way, less will have to be made in the first place.
The IAAC school of architecture in Barcelona is working on a solution to reduce dependence on air conditioning. In hot countries in particular, air conditioning is very expensive and can represent almost a third of the energy bill. The IAAC succeeded in building ceramic panels; facades which, once in action, can cool an entire building by five to six degrees Celsius.
The IAAC calls these panels “hydroceramic”. They contain an insoluble polymer called a hydrogel that can absorb 500 times its weight in water. The panels will cool the building by absorbing moisture from the air and allowing it to evaporate. This is what the IAAC means by “breathe”. As the water evaporates in the hot climate, it lowers the temperature for the employees inside.
3D printed plant plastics
The Dutch company Aectual is working on 3D printed “bioplastics”. These 3D printers are impressive on their own; capable of producing entire buildings – from floors to facades – and all from a single recyclable material.
Bioplastics are made from 100% renewable plant-based polymers and some recycled plastics. If the 3D printers make a mistake, the material can easily be shredded and reused again. Although there is no waste from bioplastics, they still require the primary growth of many plants and corn; critics will point out that this has implications in itself.
Chocolate bar signs
Cymat Technologies, a Canadian company, is working on a material for flooring and building coverings that hardens much like fizzy chocolate.
Today, most siding is limited to brick, sheet metal, plaster or concrete. But Cymat’s ALUSION panels created a new material by injecting air into molten aluminum. The air and aluminum bubble together to disperse the ceramic particles in the mixture. The result is a new type of coating which, according to Cymat, is 100% recyclable, very strong and incombustible, and even soundproof.
Conclusion: A better future?
The bread and butter of the construction industry – bricks, mortar and glass – won’t be going away anytime soon. But it’s encouraging to see so many innovative companies around the world constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve for a greener and more sustainable world.
Such innovation should be warmly encouraged and welcomed – because having alternatives to fall back on can only be a good thing, and will ensure that construction stays on solid ground.
LinkedIn: RJ Elevator