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By John Biggs
December 11, 2017
As long as there is construction, there will be concrete, steel, and sheetrock. But today’s developers and engineers are turning to a range of new materials for environmental and cost-saving reasons.
The research community has stepped up to the challenge of reinventing basic building components, putting a decidedly modern twist on even the oldest of materials.
As it’s far and away the world’s most common construction material, it stands to reason there would be a lot of experimentation and research around improving concrete. We’ve talked about self-healing concrete [link], but researchers at the Berkeley Lab at the University of California are looking to ancient times for the secrets to the longevity of concrete structures in Ancient Rome, for instance, where buildings have stood for thousands of years. They’ve discovered by using a mix of volcanic limestone, crystals form that fill out the space within concrete more effectively than traditional methods, making it less crack prone and more resistant to corrosion.
Concrete has seen other advances in the research world, too. MIT researchers have been examining the prospect of using organic materials, such as bones, sea sponges and shells as binding agents in concrete mixtures. The results are promising, but the so-called “bone-crete” is not ready for commercial use just yet.
Another emerging concrete alternative is known as AshCrete, which uses fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal. By using fly ash instead of cement, 97 percent of the concrete can be made using recyclable materials.
Bricks have also been given a scientific makeover in recent years, and have been found to be capable of pretty amazing things. The Breathe Brick, developed by assistant professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obisbo’s school of archictecture, Carmen Trudell, can actually remove pollutants from the air, much like a vacuum cleaner.
Composed of concrete bricks and recycled plastic couplings, Breathe Bricks use cyclone filtration to direct airflow within a building’s walls to be filtered before being circulated inside the building, lowering the level of airborne pollutants.
Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have devised a method of making bricks using discarded cigarette butts. The research team discovered that by incorporating even 1 percent of cigarette butt material into fired clay bricks, it achieves the two-fold effect of creating a lighter brick while hedging against what is possibly the world’s most commonly littered thing.
Perhaps one of the oldest building materials in existence, wood has also seen advances as deforestation has become a front-of-mind environmental concern.
One material prized by the construction industry is known as hardwood cross-laminated timber, or CLT. With an eye for sustainability, European architects and engineers are looking to wood sourced from rapidly growing (and super sturdy) North American tulipwood. The material’s latest iteration is, by weight, stronger than concrete, and made from renewable feedstock. It can also be made into huge pieces, such as the 47’x14’ panels used in The Smile architectural installation at the 2016 London Design Festival.
Not to be outdone, Swedish researchers, working out of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, have developed Optically Transparent Wood using a chemical process to remove the lingnin, which makes the wood bright white and porous. The resulting material is then infused with a see-through polymer material, which makes it transparent while retaining the other physical qualities of the wood. Lars Berglund, a professor at KTH Wallenberg Wood Science Center (which, yes, really exists), opines that panels made of Optically Transparent Wood can be used in building facades to let sunlight in while also retaining the occupants’ privacy.
These are just some examples of the incredible work being done in research labs around the world. As environmental consciousness becomes a bigger priority for the construction industry, the scientific community continues to search for new methods, both futuristic and ancient, to improve the most common building materials.
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