Let’s face it: construction and demolition projects generate tons of bulky, heavy debris and waste like concrete, wood, asphalt, gypsum, metal, brick, trees, and stumps. In fact, the EPA estimated there were nearly 550 million tons of debris generated in the U.S. alone in 2015—more than twice the amount generated by municipal solid waste.
It should come as no surprise that green and sustainable construction methods and materials are a hot topic. Not only can they reduce construction waste and lower greenhouse gas emissions, but they can also deliver health and wellness benefits. Even if owners are less motivated by altruistic reasons, there are incentives and tax breaks to drive their desire to go green.
As such, the construction industry has seen a growing trend toward using sustainable building materials or turning recycled materials into new construction materials. Let’s take a closer look at some of these new building material developments and their potential to revolutionize the construction industry.
Transparent Wood for Mass Production
Many of these new materials get their start from scientists who attempt to rethink how to repurpose materials. For example, consider the creation of transparent wood. Researchers at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology have developed a new transparent wood material that is suitable for mass production.
Experts say transparent wood is made through a process that chemically removes lignin from wood, causing it to become very white. Then, a transparent polymer is added, evening out both of their optical properties. Ultimately, it can be used to create windows and solar panels.
Researchers at the University of Maryland have also been busy creating transparent wood. They say it has better insulating properties and is stronger than glass and more biodegradable than plastic.
While experts say it may be a long time before transparent wood becomes a mainstream construction material, they believe it could be used for solar panel cells, to bring more light into buildings, and for load-bearing windows.
Graphene Could Be a Game-Changer
Concrete has been used as a building material since the Romans. Though extremely common and versatile, it also accounts for 6% of global carbon emissions. Researchers are excited about the possibility of using graphene to create a new type of concrete that is much stronger, water-resistant, and greener. It is viewed as an excellent material for construction as it is lightweight but stronger than steel or carbon fiber.
The biggest hurdle has been how to scale the production of graphene concrete. However, researchers at the University of Exeter have discovered a way to suspend flakes of graphene in water before mixing them with water and traditional concrete. This process may allow it to be produced more easily.
What’s exciting about graphene-enhanced concrete is its potential strength—a 146% increase in compressive strength as compared to regular concrete and a 79.5-percent increase in flexural strength. The real wow factor is found in that it has an almost 400% decrease in water permeability, according to Exeter researchers.
What does it mean? Not only would structures last longer, but they wouldn’t need to be replaced as often. Carbon dioxide emissions would also be reduced as a result of having used less concrete.
Hydroceramic and Cigarette Butt Bricks
Scientists and researchers are also finding new alternatives for using bricks in construction. Students at the Institute of Advanced Agriculture of Catalonia are studying how adding a new material to bricks can deliver a cooling effect on indoor buildings. Called “hydroceramics,” its cooling effect comes from hydrogel inside the clay bricks which absorbs rainwater up to 500 times its weight.
During hot days, the water is then released to reduce the indoor temperature. Incorporating an innovative system in a building structure has made hydroceramics into one of the *coolest* materials to revolutionize construction. These bricks may one day not only reduce your energy bill, but also may make household air conditioners obsolete.
Another type of brick being developed is called “Breathe Bricks.” They borrow their cyclone filtration from vacuum cleaners, which separates heavy pollutant particles from the surrounding air and drops them into a removable hopper at the base of a wall.
One of the most interesting developments involves using cigarette butts in the making of bricks. There are 1.2 million tons of cigarette butts thrown away each year, making up approximately 5% of our overall global waste. Not only do they make a lot of waste, but they also release harmful chemicals into the air and soil, such as arsenic, chromium, nickel, and cadmium.
Researchers at RMIT University in Australia discovered that by infusing 1% of cigarette waste in fired-clay bricks, the resulting bricks are lighter and require less energy to produce. The researchers found that if just 2.5% of the world’s annual brick production incorporated 1% cigarette butts, they would completely offset annual worldwide cigarette production.
The Future of Smart Cement
The future also looks promising for cement as scientists are developing ways to remake this popular material into a more energy-efficient building material.
In Mexico, one professor has developed a cement with the capacity to absorb and emit light energy, giving concrete more functionality as well as versatility. This phosphorescent cement can be used to illuminate highways, bike paths, and buildings without the use of electricity. The cement also absorbs solar energy, emitting it during the night for about 12 hours.
Developed by scientists in the Netherlands, self-healing concrete uses bacteria to close cracks on concrete and is being tested across the United States and Australia. By using chemicals similar to those found in human bones, infrastructures can “heal” themselves by resealing after a break, in much the same way as human bones fuse together again after a fracture. Experts predict this technology could be invaluable in earthquake-prone regions where a concrete crack tends to grow and often means the whole structure is unstable.
Turning Science Fiction into Reality
One trend fueling the need for new materials are zero net energy (ZNE) buildings, which generate as much renewable energy as a building consumes in a year. Whether they feature solar panels, wind turbines, or some other material, these buildings are designed to minimize the amount of required energy. Some states like California are pushing both residential and commercial builders to embrace ZNE.
As traditional materials and methods give way to these cutting-edge materials, it will be interesting to see how owners and general contractors adapt how projects are designed and built. Will projects feature a mix of old and new? Will everything old be recycled into new, greener building materials? With so much technological disruption occurring in the construction industry, contractors can expect to see these futuristic green and renewable building materials play a bigger and bigger role in the coming years.
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