Construction: Three Cutting-Edge Building Materials of the Future

The construction industry has gone through a series of material innovations. For instance, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age set us on the path we are on today, and skyscrapers would never have reached such heights without the development of steel.

The current buzz is cutting-edge materials only seen in science fiction films, from 4D products to material stronger than Superman to bricks that actually grow.

1. 4D Materials

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Architecture’s Skylar Tibbits received much attention last year at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference announcing that future construction will take on a whole new dimension―time.

Tibbits is a trained architect, designer and computer scientist, and currently serves as director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT. According to Tibbits, 3D printing is over-hyped―this drove him to embark on 4D printing in collaboration with Autodesk and 3D printing developer Stratasys.

The team is developing 3D printed materials that are programmed to later transform their shape in response to movement or environmental factors, such as the presence of water, air and temperature changes. According to Tibbits, “You could have products that, if they fail, they repair themselves. If they’re outdated they reconfigure themselves into other functional models or, most interesting, when we don’t want to use them anymore they can self-disassemble into recyclable components.”

The transformation of materials happens through passive energy; therefore, no human interaction is required. To develop this material, the team is using a multi-material printer to print two different materials. One material is rigid and acts as the geometry backbone and holds all the information. The second material is made to expand 150 percent when it is submerged in water; consequently, giving the structure its energy. With the use of Autodesk software, the team has moved creating forms that fold up along 90 degree angles to water activated structures which form along custom angles.

2. Graphene

In 2010, graphene won its pioneers a Nobel Prize and has been called a “wonder material.”

Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, yet is virtually weightless and as thin as a single atom. Likewise, the material is extremely flexible, stretchable and resistant to erosion from powerful acids and alkalis. Graphene is known to conduct electricity better than anything else, and made of carbon, which is available in nature. The current challenge is how to incorporate graphene into construction design. According to Virginia Tech researcher Marwan Ah-Haik, “The material has the promise; that’s checked. The idea is how to grow it for particular applications; that’s what the challenge is. The challenge now is to make a large quantity of it in certain patterns.”

3. Growing Bricks

Imagine being able to grow a brick from bacteria. That’s what biotechnology start-up bioMason did.

Recently, bioMason won an innovation award for developing bricks made from bacterial by-products that bind sand particles together. The final product was made of a matrix strong enough to be used in residential construction. The growing bricks inventor, architect-scientist Ginger Krieg Dosier, uses sand as a substrate for bricks. Liquid cement which includes bacteria, a source of nitrogen, calcium and water, is then prepared. The mixture is put on a sand bed in a mold, and mixture is added to it for five days until a solid has formed. Once the bacteria die, what is left behind is a brick ready for use.


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