Building materials like cement, wood, steel and glass often have limitations, including degradation and production-related environmental impacts. But new materials in the works could help companies move beyond the limitations in new and unusual ways:
- 3D-printed bioplastics. 3D printers can be used to build complex, sophisticated designs, from floors to façades, stairs and even entire buildings. The material employed— bioplastics—increases sustainability and reduces waste, since it is a 100% renewable plant-based polymer that can be recycled.
- Programmable cement. Mixed with water, sand and stone and left to dry, cement forms concrete. But concrete’s porosity allows water and chemicals to leach through, degrading the concrete itself and even steel supports. Now, in an attempt to reduce porosity and increase hardness, scientists are (1) programming the molecular structure of concrete as it sets, to make cement form into more tightly packed cubes, spheres or diamond-shaped structures and (2) adding negatively and positively charged surfactants to the cement mix, to control the form the cement particles take as the cement sets. Ultimately, this “designer cement” approach may require less product during construction, too.
- Hydroceramics. These ceramic panels are set on a building façade, imbued with hydrogel (an insoluble polymer that can absorb up to 500 times its weight in water), and designed to passively cool buildings. Hydrogel absorbs external humidity and exudes water during hot days. These “breathable buildings” could reduce air-conditioning bills by up to 28%.
- bioMASON bricks. Producing and firing bricks requires large amounts of energy. But a start-up has discovered a way to grow concrete bricks in ambient temperatures, placing sand in rectangular molds and then injecting bacteria that wrap around the grains of sand. They then ‘feed’ this mix with nutrient-rich water over the course of a few days, creating calcium carbonate crystals that ‘grow’ around each grain of sand and form a hard, stone-like substance. These products are equal to standard bricks yet require significantly less energy to create.
- Alusion panels. Most materials used for ceilings, floors and cladding are made from brick, sheet metal, concrete or painted plaster. But a versatile new non-combustible product made by injecting air into molten aluminum—designed for covering buildings, doors, floors and more—offers noise reduction benefits and is 100% recyclable.
While many of today’s leading building materials won’t be used anytime in the near future, these alternatives show promise. There is so much more out there for us to see and the journey has just begun. We hope that science and technology will keep progressing and accelerating the pace of change that is coming our way! As the industry evolves, we’ll be right there evolving with it.