Strange things can happen when materials are shrunk down in size to the atomic or sub-atomic level. Opaque materials, like copper, become see-through. Stable materials, such as aluminum, become combustible, and some materials, like carbon, drastically increase their strength.
Advances in nanotechnology, which allows scientists to manipulate matter on an atomic scale (or smaller), has given us the ability to greatly augment and enhance the properties of a range of building materials.
There are many potential game-changing applications for construction if nanotechnology is unlocked and brought to fruition at commercial scale.
One such application of nanotechnology is the formation of what are called carbon nanotubes, which are hollow strings of carbon atoms bonded together in a tube-like structure. Such tubes are unthinkably small in size, some 50,000 times smaller in diameter than a human hair. Yet in spite of their diminutive size, when it comes to tensile strength, these sub-microscopic nanotubes are the strongest material ever discovered, approximately 100 times stronger than steel of the same diameter.
Carbon atoms are known for being strong to begin with. Substances like charcoal and graphite are made up of carbon. Diamond, the hardest substance on earth, is nothing more than ultra-condensed, highly organized carbon atoms. Harnessing the immense strength of the bond of carbon atoms through nanotechnology can improve durability, performance and even energy efficiency in common construction materials like concrete, ceramics, steel and glass.
Concrete reinforced with carbon nanotubes, (similar to how rebar works), is denser and less porous than traditional concrete, which makes it better at sealing out water and more able to withstand and even correct naturally forming internal cracks. This can improve the durability of everything from roads to foundations to load-bearing walls and beams, decreasing maintenance costs and improving structural properties across the board.
Another application for nanotechnology is surface coatings that make materials more resistant to pollutants or wear and tear.
Another application for nanotechnology is surface coatings that make materials more resistant to pollutants or wear and tear (akin to Teflon coating). Ceramic floor tiles coated in nanoparticles are surface damage resistant, and break down dirt when exposed to ultraviolet light. They can even prevent odors and fungus from forming. Concrete treated with such coating can prevent graffiti or other staining materials from sticking to the surface, or even remove airborne pollutants from the air.
Which leads us to another example of nano-enhanced cement, photocatalytic concrete. TX Active is one such trademarked concrete technology, which reacts to light to either self-clean or actively reduce “significant amounts” of environmental pollutants, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects. TX Active has been used on churches and other old buildings in Rome and Milan, Italy in densely packed urban centers that are susceptible to graffiti or pollution from road traffic.
Glass can also be improved upon with a special liquid nanomaterial coating that turns regular windows into so-called “smart windows”. Australian company Nanovations offers an invisible liquid treatment for glass that can be easily applied which makes it more water resistant, more durable against scratches and abrasions, easier to clean, and improves its tolerance to ultraviolet rays. This treatment, called NG 1010, was used to restore and protect more than 54,000 square feet of glass on an iconic high-rise building on Sydney Harbour.
This treatment was used to restore and protect more than 54,000 square feet of glass on an iconic high-rise building on Sydney Harbour.
Of course, you can’t walk down to your local contractor supply shop to pick up carbon nanotubes just yet. The process involves laboratory equipment like a super-heated furnace, a mix of carbon-rich gasses and a carbon-based catalyst from which the tubes spring up. Materials made with carbon nanotubes are considerably more expensive than their traditional materials counterparts, so adoption in the construction industry has been slow to roll out, but there are many potential game-changing applications for construction if the full potential nanotechnology is unlocked and brought to fruition at commercial scale.
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