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By John Biggs
December 18, 2017
Advances in understanding how the natural world can complement existing construction processes has given rise to exciting new possibilities for building materials made of organic matter. Mother Nature is perhaps the greatest builder of all, and that’s exactly where researchers are looking for the next wave of biological or even living materials.
Synthetic building materials are inert, and require human intervention to repair damage that inevitably happens over time. But harnessing the power of nature can yield some incredible results. Concrete or brick that heals itself thanks to living bacteria embedded deep within the mixture, surfaces that actively repel pollutants or damage, and even the ability to grow entire structures where they’re needed using traditional scaffolding to facilitate the natural growth processes of organic materials are just some of the potential applications for biomaterials.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense whose mission is to discover and invest in technologies in service of national security, recently awarded a $9.1 million contract to New York-based Evocative Design. The company is developing the next generation of building materials using living systems and aims to ultimately prove they can be produced at scale.
The project is funded by DARPA’s Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program, which launched in August of 2016. The agency has bet big on this emerging building technology, and the possibilities are nothing short of world changing.
“Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage,” Justin Gallivan, program manager of ELM said in a statement when the initiative was launched.
In Europe, the construction industry takes seriously its responsibility to pivot to more sustainable, eco-friendly processes and materials as the continent works towards ambitious goals on removing carbon emissions from its economy. One of those materials is clay, which of course can be found in ancient buildings still standing strong after thousands of years. Manfred Lemke, of Germany-based Claytec, which develops and produces clay building materials and systems, told Phys.org that 30% of homes in Germany today use clay as a primary component.
"Clay plaster requires just 10 percent of the energy input of gypsum plaster. The unique ability of clay-based materials is that they can be re-plastified at any time of use. Using just water, the material can be reactivated, for repair for example. Low energy input in production, re-plastification at any time and re-use are all clear environmental benefits."
Other biomaterials being actively researched for use in construction include skin, bone, coral, ash and bark, all of which have inherent advantages over man-made counterparts, like the ability to self-repair and to be replenished quickly and naturally.
Brick is another building material that dates back millennia, and represents a big opportunity for eco-friendly enhancements. A North Carolina-based startup called BioMason creates zero-emission bricks without using heat. Drawing inspiration from how coral is formed, BioMason’s process involves injecting sand with microorganisms, which then surround each grain, growing larger to fill out the brick-shaped molds. The bricks are ready for use in 3-5 days, according to GreenBuildingElements.
According to market researcher IBISWorld, sustainable building materials is currently a $60 billion industry, and it’s expected to grow precipitously over the next five years. This means more companies will be looking to these alternatives to traditional building materials as the demand for eco-friendly building grows and the science progresses to the point where large-scale manufacturing becomes cost-efficient.
If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks you may enjoy:
The Future of Green Building
Where is Green Building Headed?
Is Green Building Worth It?
Green Machine: The Biggest Eco-Friendly Construction Projects to Come
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