Five Cutting-Edge Building Materials to Watch

The following materials technologies are making significant headway this year. This motley collection of innovations, which includes clothing made from synthesized spider threads, consumer products bio-engineered from discarded shrimp shells, and a bridge built entirely by robots, represents the culmination of years—sometimes decades—of research.

Solar-Thermal Cladding
The Solar Activated Façade, a cladding system that combines wood louvers and back-vented glazing, is particularly appealing. Designed as a thermal storage device for use in colder climates, the system consists of prefabricated panels that can be installed onsite via an aluminum cladding mounting system. The wood slats are angled to deflect the summer sun while inviting the winter sun’s radiant energy into an interior cavity, storing diurnal winter heat long into the night to reduce heat loss from interior spaces. Depending on the type of insulated backing used, the Solar Activated Façade can lead to R-values ranging from 65 to 150. The system was originally developed by Switzerland-based architect Giuseppe Fent, and has been commercially available in that country for approximately 15 years as Lucido Solar AG.

Synthetic Spider Thread
One of the most captivating arguments in Janine Benyus’ celebrated book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (HarperCollins, 1997) concerned her aspiration for modern industry to create materials as strong, elegant, and versatile as spider silk. Since then, Spiber, Inc. has since taken the reins in creating a synthetic spider thread it calls Qmonos (based on kumonosu, the Japanese term for a spider web). The fibroin protein that imparts Qmonos with its dragline, silk-like quality is not made from goats’ milk, but rather bio-engineered bacteria and recombinant DNA.

Structural 3D Printing
Originally scheduled to start construction late last year, the Dutch designer Joris Laarman’s MX3D Bridge should begin taking shape this year. As the world’s first 3D-printed bridge, the highly anticipated steel structure will be built using the Netherlands–based MX3D’s multi-axis metal-printing technology. This process is driven by industrial robots fitted with welding machines that can print lines of various metals in mid-air, starting from an anchored surface—similar to drawing a structure in space—by incrementally fusing molten metal in short lengths and allowing it to cool. Working in collaboration with Autodesk and European construction company Heijmans, Laarman has long been developing plans for the autonomously constructed pedestrian bridge, which will span the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal, one of Amsterdam’s oldest man-made waterways.

Self-Healing Concrete
Also undergoing testing is a collection of self-healing concrete technologies. Through a project called Materials for Life (M4L), researchers from the School of Engineering at the University of Cardiff, in Wales, are conducting the first major trial of these materials in the U.K. The team, which also includes scientists from the University of Bath and the University of Cambridge, both in England, will evaluate the viability of three types of self-healing concrete: one with shape-memory polymers activated by electrical current, one with healing agents made from organic and inorganic compounds, and one with capsules containing bacteria and healing agents. M4L’s goal is autonomous infrastructure—roads, tunnels, bridges, and buildings—that can repair themselves without human intervention. The team’s goal is to “create sustainable and resilient systems that continually monitor, regulate, adapt, and repair themselves without the need for human intervention,” said Cardiff professor and M4L principal investigator Bob Lark in a press release. This is especially important given the estimated 40 billion pounds ($57.8 billion) spent annually on the concrete-intensive maintenance and repair of these structures in the U.K., the team says. The M4L trial is underway at a road-construction site near the A465 highway in South Wales, where the researchers can view the performance under real-world conditions.

Finally, research continues to bring us closer to tomorrow’s plastic. Scientists at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a new bioplastic made from discarded shrimp shells. Using the remarkably tough yet flexible natural chitin, or insect cuticle, Wyss founding director Don Ingber and postdoctoral fellow Javier Fernandez have created thin films with the same structure and composition as chitin. Made using the processed derivative chitosan from shrimp shells, the new plastic matches aluminum in strength at only half the weight. It is also biocompatible, biodegradable, inexpensive, and may be molded to a variety of 3D shapes. The researchers are optimistic about the material’s ability to replace fossil fuel–based plastics in consumer and medical applications. This is critical given the proliferation of non-biodegradable plastic waste discarded every year, much of which is polluting the world’s oceans.

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