WHAT’S NEW IN CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS?
Construction materials have been evolving for generations—growing stronger, lighter and more durable while delivering less environmental impact. So what’s under development these days? Here are a few materials we’re watching.
New concrete products
Traditional sand-based concrete is one of the most frequently used building products, but it can crack when exposed to water and chemicals, and producing it takes a lot of energy. Researchers around the world have some interesting ideas about how to overcome these limitations.
A group in the United Kingdom is developing no-fines concrete made of crushed granite. It’s a permeable mixture that can absorb 880 gallons of water per minute—a possible solution for roadbuilders working in regions that are prone to flooding.
At the University of California in Berkeley, a team is studying the concrete used to build the Roman Empire. They’re testing a mortar mix made from volcanic ash and lime that results in a strong, crack-resistant material, produced with less energy and emissions.
Researchers in Malaysia are experimenting with a concrete product that combines conventional ingredients with waste and recycled materials such as fly ash and aluminum can fibers.
Several types of self-healing concrete are under development. Some are made with shape-memory polymers activated by electrical currents. Others contain healing agents made from organic and inorganic compounds. And some are embedded with dormant bacteria that activates and multiplies when a crack forms and water is present, causing the excretion of calcium carbonate that plugs the hole and prevents further damage.
When it comes to energy conservation, there are plenty of new developments to watch.
Next-generation photovoltaic glass
Advances in technology are enabling the development of photovoltaic glass that’s more transparent and aesthetically appealing than in the past. When this type of glass is used for windows, façades and rooftops, a whole building can be turned into a solar panel.
Solar-activated facade panels
Wood products are being clad with thermal insulation to create solar-activated facade panels. A louver design allows the panels to be adjusted to either deflect summer heat or capture and use the winter sun’s radiant energy.
Thin-film solar cells
A new design for thin-film solar cells has been inspired by studying how butterfly wings absorb light. Researchers in California found that wings with high absorption capabilities are covered with unusually shaped scales and dotted with tiny holes arranged randomly. By replicating the scales and holes, they’ve been able to develop thin-film solar cells that can harvest two to four times as much sunlight as previous-generation products.
Kinetic flooring and road materials
Researchers in South America have covered a high-traffic pedestrian area near a large soccer field with a flooring material that converts the energy from footsteps into electricity, which powers floodlights around the field. Meanwhile, in Europe, a startup company is testing a paving material that captures energy from moving vehicles and converts it to electricity, which can be passed on to the power grid.
More new stuff
Have you heard about a new bioplastic material made from discarded shrimp shells? It’s as strong as aluminum and only half the weight—biocompatible, biodegradable and inexpensive to make. Or how about synthetic spider silk? Light as a web, yet stronger than steel on a gram-for-gram basis. It’s hard to predict if or when these materials will be commercially available, but one thing is certain: there are interesting days ahead for those who develop new construction materials and those who use them.
Take a quick look at concrete that can absorb 880 gallons of water per minute.