Edge of Innovation

Tomorrow’s building materials could include wool, mushrooms and nuts

 

Can you build a house out of bamboo, plastic bottles, wool, mushrooms and the shells of macadamia nuts? Not today, perhaps. But, believe it or not, each one of these is a core ingredient in a new or emerging building material.

New materials could transform the construction industry

Coupled with advances in 3D printing, robotics, and fabrication techniques, new thinking in material science could transform the construction industry. Because if any of these unlikely materials can supplant concrete, steel, and wood timber in construction projects, we may see a future in which buildings are stronger, more visually striking and far more sustainable.

While we’ve already speculated about future skyscrapers made out of wood, a research team at the University of Sydney is attempting to produce a material that can fulfil all the same functions as standard timber without cutting down any more trees.

The Australian researchers are looking to take macadamia shells (that are native to the country’s northeast) and various timber waste products such as sawdust and turn them into a micro-timber that could then be 3D printed as a gradient timber panel.

mushroom spore mycelium timber
Composite building materials could herald a construction revolution. This board is made from mushroom spore mycelium. Image credit: www.ecovativedesign.com.

They hope that this micro-timber will find use as a more sustainable and aesthetically different alternative to standard timber, although it’s far too soon to say exactly what impact it’ll have — as the project only began this year.

Still, co-lead researcher Sandra Löschke told ABC Rural, it could be transformative. She also predicted that timber composite materials such as this will inevitably “take over” the building industry.

Another big contender for the battle to supplant standard timber as a construction material is bamboo. Not the raw and hollow kind you see in nature documentaries being eaten by pandas or being tied together to build a raft or hut, but rather engineered bamboo.

Engineered bamboo for construction purposes
Engineered bamboo is processed by combining bamboo culm into a laminated composite, which has similarities to glue-laminated timber. Image credit: www.arct.cam.ac.uk.

This is bamboo that’s been processed into a much denser material, like plywood or timber. A recent University of Cambridge study found that engineered bamboo products possess similar characteristics and strength to conventional timber, which means that its success on the market will come down to its price, speed of production, and sustainability compared to its more established rival.

The timber industry is not the only target for new building materials. Startup Kite Bricks earned attention from the likes of Wired and Ars Technica last year for its plan to make Lego-like cement bricks that could be stacked together with a special adhesive to form houses and other buildings, complete with traditional doors and windows as well as slots that could be reinforced with steel bars.

Kite Bricks Smart Bricks
Ambitious startup Kite Bricks proposes what looks like a LEGO set of Smart Bricks built by a robot.

Elsewhere, new types of concrete derived from materials such as geopolymer foam and styrofoam waste promise to match the performance of ordinary Portland cement-based concrete, with a much-reduced environmental footprint.

MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, meanwhile, is exploring ways to improve existing cement production so that concrete will last longer, require fewer repairs, and use less cement — with results already that make gains in each of those areas.

Sustainable bricks made of mushrooms and wool

More radical building materials are emerging, too. Several new kinds of bricks have made headlines around the world in the past few years, with core ingredients as unusual as mushroom spore mycelium or wool. And new fabrication techniques such as 3D printing and smart, robot-powered masonry (complete with porous, complex geometry in one proposal) promise further innovations.

The future of construction may even prove to be a hybrid of old and new technology, with ancient building materials like stone — or new foams and concretes that resemble stone — worked into impossible structures by groups of robotic craftsmen that carry loads and build with precision that us humans could never hope to match. — Richard Moss (@MossRC)

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