Monday, 30 April 2018


Building Blocks of Innovation: 11 Cutting Edge Materials Set to Shape the Future
By SA Rogers,
Web Urbanist, 18 April 2018.

Architecture has looked much the same since early humans first began constructing their own shelter, but that could change soon with the introduction of new materials and technologies producing almost alien-like forms. Woven carbon fiber, ultra-strong but amazingly thin concrete, transparent wood and 3D-printed sandstone are among the innovations that could break free of the traditional constraints and result in a new era of lightweight, durable, versatile forms in all sorts of organic and mathematical shapes.

1, 2 & 3. Super Wood, Nano Wood and Transparent Wood


Wood is an ancient material, and it isn’t going anywhere. Not only is wood construction enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with super-tall wood structures planned around the world, it’s seeing fascinating modifications that make it stronger and more versatile than ever. Researchers at the University of Maryland have created a ‘super wood’ that’s stronger than steel but six times lighter. First, they boil the wood in a mixture of sodium sulfite and sodium hydroxide to partially remove the lignin fiber and hemicellulose, and then hot-press it to crush the cell walls, creating durable nano fibers. This process could be carried out on wood species that are traditionally too soft for many applications, potentially shifting the entire logging industry.

The same research team also transformed wood into an insulating material that’s stronger and more environmentally friendly than styrofoam using a similar process. This ‘nano wood’ is created by removing the lignin (which gives woods its color and rigidity) as well as some of the short fibers “that make up the scaffolding-like base structure of the wood,” they explain. “The aligned cellulose fibers then bond with each other and results in a high mechanical strength.” When pressed in a certain direction it’s 30 times stronger than typical thermal insulation materials and a lot more insulating (blocking at least 10 degrees more heat than the record-setting best simulator, silica aerogel.)


Oh yeah, and then there’s transparent wood. When the lignin is leached out using that same chemical bath that’s used to make ‘super wood,’ and then the wood is soaked in epoxy, it turns the wood clear. The result looks like plastic, is stronger than glass, won’t shatter on impact and actually biodegrades. While not fully transparent, it’s able to transmit up to 90 percent of light.

4. Fungus-Based Self-Healing Concrete


Concrete may rarely need maintenance in the future thanks to a special species of fungi known as Trichoderma reesei, which acts as a sealing agent when added to the mix. Taking inspiration from living creatures’ ability to regenerate tissue, researchers at Binghamton University determined that the fungus lies dormant until a new crack appears, at which point its spores germinate, expand and produce calcium carbonate to fill the crack in response to oxygen and water. Considering how much infrastructure in the United States is currently crumbling, it could make a huge difference in the durability of what we build in the future.

“Without proper treatment, cracks tend to progress further and eventually require costly repair,” they explain. “If micro-cracks expand and reach the steel reinforcement, not only the concrete will be attacked, but also the reinforcement will be corroded, as it is exposed to water, oxygen, possibly CO2 and chlorides, leading to structural failure.”

The way the fungi works, “When the cracks are completely filled and ultimately no more water or oxygen can enter inside, the fungi will again form spores. As the environmental conditions become favorable in later stages, the spores could be awakened again.”

5. Thin-Film Photovoltaics Embedded in Concrete


Not only are we likely to see a lot more sculptural structures made of incredibly thin layers of concrete thanks to digital design and fabrication techniques, but they could be pre-embedded with thin film solar cells. This prototype was created by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich with a surface thickness of around two inches and edges just an inch thick.

Mixed within the concrete are heating and cooling coils and insulation, and the formwork is made of a polymer textile stretched across cable netting.

6. Carbon Fiber: This Century’s Steel?


At the Autodesk BUILD (Building, Innovation, Learning and Design) Space in Boston, researchers are experimenting with all kinds of potential future building materials, and carbon fiber is among the most promising. Inspired by the way spiders and silkworms weave, this ultra-strong material is lighter than steel, twice as stiff and five times stronger, and the way the hair-thin threads are woven produces freeform, organic-looking architecture. Carbon fiber is already used to make all kinds of things, from fishing poles to the masts of sailboats, but robotic building techniques are bringing it to a whole new level. The University of Stuttgart and its graduates are among the innovators in this area, producing amazing woven pavilions each year to show off possibilities.


What’s more is the fact that woven carbon fiber structures could easily be added to existing architecture made of more conventional materials in order to strengthen, update or otherwise modify it, saving hundreds of years of existing construction.

7. Recycled Plastic Bricks Fabricated On-Site


We’ve literally covered our entire planet in non-biodegradable plastic trash, a monumental foible for a species that’s supposed to be so smart. What can we do with it all? One idea is gathering it up and transforming it into building blocks. Various companies and research facilities are already making it happen, like startup ByFusion in the United States, which has a patented process to compact the plastic into construction-quality bricks.

The best part is the fact that all the equipment to do so fits inside a shipping container and can be operated in all sorts of locations with no emissions. The plastic doesn’t even have to be sorted or washed first.

8. Graphene: A Wonder Material with Intriguing Potential


Graphene is a ‘wonder material’ known for its impressive strength and light weight. This semi-metal consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, making almost all of its strength two-dimensional, so it’s been tough translating it to three-dimensional applications. But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that when the material is shaped into a sponge-like form, it resists forces 10 times greater than steel. They compressed small flakes of graphene into magenta colored polymer in a shape resembling corals and diatoms and found that its thin walls allowed it to deform incrementally, helping it withstand pressure.

The model represents new ways of thinking about graphene, which could lead to breakthroughs in the immediate future. MIT believes graphene could someday be used to build things like long-span bridges. To gain a better understanding of graphene, check out an infographic at Futurism.

9 & 10. Super-Lightweight Aerographite and Graphene Aerogel


The world’s lightest material is a porous carbon material known as aerographite, developed by scientists at Kiel University and Hamburg University of Technology. As seen in this photograph, it’s so light, it can balance on a drop of water. Created by a network of carbon tubes three-dimensional interwoven at nano level, the material is 75 times lighter than styrofoam, electrically conductive and non-transparent.


“It is able to be compressed up to 95 percent and be pulled back to its original form without any damage,” says Professor Rainer Adelung. “Up to a certain point the aerographite will become even more solid and therefore stronger than before.”

Those scientists say the aerographite material they developed is four times lighter than aerogel, but it didn’t take long before their work was eclipsed by a team from China’s Zhejiang University in the form of ‘graphene aerogel.’ Made of freeze-dried carbon and graphene oxide, it weighs a mere .16 milligrams per cubic centimeter and has a density lower than helium. They made it into a sponge-like form and balanced it on delicate objects to show just how light it really is. It’s also highly absorbent and elastic. It was deemed the world’s “least dense” material by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016. The researchers are still determining the material’s real-world applications.

11. The Intricate Possibilities of 3D-Printed Sandstone


Ornamentation of the sort we’ve never seen in architecture could be realized with 3D printing, and liquified sandstone may be one of the materials used to create structures of H.R. Giger levels of intricacy, as demonstrated here by designers Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger. Their ‘Digital Grotesque’ large-scale sculptures show off complex, interwoven and sometimes fractal details that couldn’t be achieved by hand, with the architectural scale reduced from bricks to grains of sand.


Smaller 3D-printed modules are assembled into a whole. Imagine the potential this kind of technology holds for building facades in a hypothetical future in which we’ve moved past minimalism into a new baroque era in which we don’t mind all those tiny crevices getting grimy.

Top image: Digital Grotesque II, the full-scale 3D printed grotto. Credit: Demetris Shammas via eVolo.

[Source: Web Urbanist.]

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