While we have all experienced the effects of the information technology revolution now underway, we may be less aware of the impact of the new “materials revolution,” argues University of Minnesota professor Blaine Brownell in his excellent new book Transmaterial Next: A Catalog of Materials That Define Our Future. Building materials are being transformed to respond to our planetary environmental crisis, lower costs and boost efficiency, and provide new media for creative expression. Given the serious problems facing the Earth, the scale of the ambition is heartening.
Brownell has been documenting the evolution of building materials for some time. Over the past decade, he has written Material Strategies: Innovative Applications in Architecture; Hypernatural: Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature (read The Dirt review); and three books in the Transmaterial series.
Transmaterial Next is rich with interesting details and well-organized, with sections on concrete, mineral, metal, woods and biomaterials, plastic and rubber, glass, paint and coatings, fabric, light, and digital materials. More than 100 brief case studies on materials offer brief summaries, images, the state of commercial readiness, and future possible impacts. He also defines the materials in terms of the trends they represent.
For example, future materials may be ultra-performing, meaning they are “stronger, lighter, more durable, and flexible than their conventional counterparts;” multi-dimensional, “with greater depth and richness;” re-purposed, as they often “replace precious raw materials with less endangered, more plentiful ones, and divert products from the waste stream;” recombinant — because “two or more different materials act in harmony to create a product whose performance is greater than the sum of its parts;” intelligent, because they “take inspiration from biological systems and are therefore less wasteful;” transformational, because they “undergo a physical metamorphosis based on environmental stimuli;” and interfacial — as they can serve as a linkage between the “physical and virtual worlds.”
Brownell does a great job of explaining the environmental costs of our exploding resource use and how new, less wasteful materials will help.
Concrete, which was used by the Romans before falling out of favor for centuries, is now the “most heavily used material on Earth after water.” Concrete production accounts for some 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and its use is growing 2-4 percent year, given its relatively short life-span and difficulty to recycle.
Concrete production can be far less polluting. Brownell identifies how simply replacing some of the Portland cement portion of cement with “alternative cementitious materials, such as fly ash or slag” can reduce emissions by some 46 percent. He calls for replacing problematic steel, which is used as a reinforcement in some structural concrete, with fibers or other materials.
Concrete emissions can also be reduced by lengthening the useful life of concrete as well — through “self-maintaining” or “self-healing” technologies that reduce maintenance. For example, BacillaFilla is an “engineered microbial glue” that can repair cracks in concrete. The microbes are grown in a bioreactor. After they are applied with a spray, the microbes quickly bind and come with a kill switch so the “germination process may be terminated.”
And then there’s bendable concrete, which is “far less brittle than conventional concrete.” While bendable concrete does form micro-cracks if bent too far, it can “self heal in the presence of air and water.”
In the minerals section, Brownell sees the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the brick industry, which spews out high amounts of black carbon. One way to do that is growing bricks via biochemical processes. Mason, a company out of North Carolina, seeks to do this with BioBrick, which uses bacteria to generate bricks out of sand or another aggregate.
Another fascinating application — Stone Spray, a sort of 3D printer that “collects direct and sand located on sites and mixes them with a binder ingredient.” The vision of nearly-instantaneously printing a structure using nearby materials is awe-inspiring. The technology is in very early stages, and there would be limitations — the load-bearing capabilities of nearby materials would determine the capacity of the structure.
Over the past 500 years, some 4.45 billion acres of forest have been cleared. If the planet keeps going at the rate it has been, we will lose the world’s rainforests in a century. “This resource crisis suggests that forests must be preserved as much as possible.” To slow or stop deforestation, Brownell offers up some novel technologies, such as NewsPaperWood, a Dutch product, that is made out of recycled newspaper and is gorgeous.
In the paints and coatings section, we learn about the potential of next-generation surfaces with coating technologies that enable “light harvesting, electricity production, and structural monitoring.” One brilliant example is the photo-luminescent paint found in the Dutch Smart Highway Project. A team from Studio Roosegaarde and Heijmans created a test bed with photo-luminescent strips that “absorb daylight and emit light during the evening for up to eight hours.” Think of the cost savings for lighting and the creative opportunities.
A related idea in the lighting section: A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin harnessed genetically-modified E.coli bacteria, algae, and protists to create a biolumenescent light source that will run on sunlight and its own waste. Still in early development, the bulb designers face challenges in making it reliable, Brownell argues.
And there’s also Starlight Avatar, a strange plant that gives off light. Its chloroplast gene has been genetically modified with elements of marine bacteria. Bioglow, the firm behind this new organism, wants to “create foilage that can double as low-energy light sources.” The plant, which Brownell thinks could be used alongside paths for nighttime navigation, is ready for the market and available in the U.S. Whether there is a future market for glow-in-the-dark plants is unknown.
Now these new materials need to be scaled up. In particular, the planet is way past due more efficient and longer-lasting concrete.