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By John Biggs
February 11, 2019
Chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new material with the ability to grow, strengthen or even repair itself using carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, similar to the way plants do.
“Materials science has never produced anything like this,” MIT Carbon C. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering Michael Strano said in an MIT news release. “These materials mimic some aspects of something living, even though it’s not reproducing.”
Recurring building and roadway maintenance is a time-consuming and expensive part of construction work. If MIT’s material becomes viable for use in construction, it could save firms time and money on labor, in addition to its environmental benefits.
The material could serve as a coating or additive to lend its self-healing qualities to existing building materials, lengthening time between scheduled maintenance work and enhancing structures’ durability.
In its current form, the material is a gel-like substance that reacts to carbon dioxide in the air, the same way plants incorporate carbon dioxide into their growing tissues, MIT explains. This means in theory the material could be prepared and shipped as a lightweight gel before growing to its final usable, much heavier state once delivered.
“The material might, for example, be made into panels of a lightweight matrix that could be shipped to a construction site, where they would harden and solidify just from exposure to air and sunlight, thereby saving on the energy and cost of transportation,” writes MIT News.
Just like plants, the material is capable of transforming the carbon dioxide in the air around it into a solid using only sunlight.
“This is a completely new concept in materials science,” Strano said. “What we call carbon-fixing materials don’t exist yet today.”
The material’s environmental benefits are two-fold: not only does it actively remove carbon from the air, its production also requires no fossil fuels, being made from a polymer of aminopropyl methacrylamide (APMA) and glucose, an enzyme called glucose oxidase, and chloroplasts, the part of a plant cell that absorbs light, obtained from spinach leaves, according to MIT News.
“Imagine a synthetic material that could grow like trees, taking the carbon from the carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the material’s backbone,” said Strano.
The team at MIT is currently perfecting production methods and refinement of the material, and is exploring early commercial applications like self-healing coatings and crack-filling. The polymer isn’t yet strong enough to be used in construction materials, but the team hopes the science will eventually progress to the point that enables their eventual development.
We’ve written about self-healing materials such as concrete before, and functionally this new material accomplishes the same thing; scratches or cracks that form in surfaces repair on their own without the need for human intervention. But until now, MIT says, all such self-healing materials have required external input such as heat, UV light or chemical treatment to facilitate the process.
However this new MIT-developed material takes that self-healing concept to a whole other level, requiring nothing but ambient light to capture carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and convert the colorless gas into solid form.
As the chemistry and materials science evolve, the material could have revolutionary applications for the future of green building technology, the demand for which will surely only increase in the coming years.
“Our work shows that carbon dioxide need not be purely a burden and a cost,” Strano told MIT News. “It is also an opportunity in this respect. There’s carbon everywhere. We build the world with carbon. Humans are made of carbon. Making a material that can access the abundant carbon all around us is a significant opportunity for materials science. In this way, our work is about making materials that are not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.”
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