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Material Trends to Watch in 2017

New innovations in renewable energy and building materials to track in the New Year.

By Blaine Brownell

Material forecasts typically consider factors such as potential industry growth, economic impact, and newsworthiness (i.e., surprising new discoveries) to predict the best innovations for the New Year. For my 2017 forecast of significant material trends, I've attempted to select technologies that address a combination of these criteria and offer unanticipated yet highly advantageous capabilities within established industries like cement, timber, and renewable energy. Assuming a successful path to commercialization and adoption, these offerings promise to influence the fields of design and construction this year and beyond.

Programmable Cement

As humanity's most consumed substance after water, concrete remains a primary focus of material research and development. Despite its ubiquity, concrete still holds many mysteries awaiting discovery—such as the recent discovery that the cement in concrete carbonizes carbon dioxide over time, effectively redefining the material’s presumed environmental footprint. Such studies emphasize the need to better understand—and shape—the material at a molecular level.

A compelling recent example has emerged within the Multiscale Materials Laboratory at Rice University. Scientists there have discovered previously unknown principles of calcium-silicate-hydrate (C-S-H) cement particle behavior, and are employing this knowledge to program the particles in highly controlled ways. "We call it programmable cement,” said lead author and assistant professor of materials science Rouzbeh Shahsavari in a Rice University press release. “The great advance of this work is that it’s the first step in controlling the kinetics of cement to get desired shapes. We show how one can control the morphology and size of the basic building blocks of C-S-H so that they can self-assemble into microstructures with far greater packing density compared with conventional amorphous C-S-H microstructures.” Shahsavari anticipates this enhanced density will result in increased material strength and longevity and lead to better chemical resistance and protection of reinforcing steel inside the concrete.

Hardwood Cross-Laminated Timber

Another common building material that is receiving significant interest is wood. The construction industry is currently enamored with mass timber, based on the development of new methods for tall building construction using a rapidly renewable, carbon sequestering material that outperforms concrete and steel environmentally. Within the burgeoning field of softwood-based engineered lumber products, an unlikely contender has appeared: hardwood cross-laminated timber (CLT).

London-based DRMM Architects developed a CLT panel of rapid-growing North American tulipwood in collaboration with global engineering firm ARUP and the American Hardwood Export Council. Employed in the design firm's "Endless Stair" for the 2013 London Design Festival—as well as the Smile installation by Alison Brooks Architects for the 2016 event—the material is now licensed to Stuttgart-based manufacturer Züblin under the name Leno CLT. Unlike typical CLT, which consists of softwood spruce, the tulipwood version is much stronger—and even stronger than concrete by weight—and is considered to have a superior appearance. Furthermore, Leno CLT is made from a rapidly renewable feedstock and can be manufactured in extra large sizes—such as the 14-meter-by-4.5-meter panels used in the Smile.

Solar-Harvesting Roads

Renewable technologies continue to advance with more diverse—and unexpected—applications, such as the integration of solar harvesting capability in transportation infrastructure. For example, TK City, Idaho–based company Solar Roadways develops interlocking hexagonal pavers composed of a photovoltaic (PV) substrate protected by high-strength textured glass. The pavers incorporate LED lighting and heating elements for self-powered roadway illumination and snow-melting capabilities.

Another example is Wattway, an energy-harvesting road surface made by French civil engineering firm Colas. According to the manufacturer, vehicles occupy roads a mere 10 percent of the time; meanwhile, 20 square meters of exposed road surface can be put to use to power a typical single home. A flexible composite material that is only a few millimeters thick, Wattway exhibits a highly textured PV surface. While it lacks the multiple technologies and capabilities of Solar Roadways, Wattway can be applied directly onto the surface of existing pavement and is designed to accommodate the inherent thermal dilation of vehicular paving. The company recently installed a 1-kilometer-long swath of roadway in Normandy with the product, which is anticipated to generate 280 megawatts annually.

Power-Generating Textiles

Another growing area of renewable energy–integration is in fabric. Power-harvesting textiles has long been a goal of designers and manufacturers of technology-enhanced apparel. However, the limited material characteristics of existing electronics—rigid components, wires, and fragile connections—have made them difficult to integrate within pliable textiles. Last September, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology announced the development of a fabric that harvests energy from solar and kinetic sources by embracing, rather than avoiding the potential friction that can result from mixing energy-generating materials with other fibers. They employed a commercial textile machine to construct an entirely new fabric composed of polymer fiber-based solar cells and triboelectric fibers—strands that become electrically charged when they generate frictional contact against another material. “The fabric is highly flexible, breathable, lightweight and adaptable to a range of uses,” said material science and engineering professor Zhong Lin Wang in a university press release. Additionally, the textile consists of low cost, widely available, and environmentally friendly materials that can withstand high levels of abuse—a rare combination of beneficial qualities that could soon bring more practical power-generating apparel to life.

Building-Integrated Bioreactors

Although buildings aren't typically used to grow biomass, building-integrated algae harvesting is a burgeoning—if still experimental—trend. As pervasive photosynthesizing organisms that form the basis of the aquatic food chain, microalgae are viewed as a resource with boundless potential for addressing food and energy scarcity. Splitterwerk, an Austria-based design collective, and Arup made headlines with their algae bioreactor facade at the 2013 International Building Exhibition, for example. London-based ecoLogicStudio has created an applied research trajectory based on the development of what it calls “agri-urban” ecosystems. The firm's ecoMachines, such as the Urban Algae Folly in Braga, Portugal, and HORTUS installation in Karlsruhe exhibit, in Germany, are meanwhile “bio-digital micro-ecologies.”

These biomorphic designs consist of encapsulated algae cultures and electronic equipment such as light sensors and lighting. Although highly speculative in nature, such efforts to incorporate biomass cultivation into inhabitable structures represent an admirable objective for architecture that not only protects occupants but also feeds them. “Human, technological, and environmental forces are increasingly enmeshed and coevolutionary,” said MIT's SENSEable City Lab director Carlo Ratti to Metropolis in 2013. “Architecture is no exception.”
 


This article was originally published by Architect magazine on January 12, 2017.

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