10 of the Coolest New Sustainable Construction Materials

Since the beginning of time, innovative people in history have incrementally improved the consumable technology and inputs in the building and construction industry, to change what we are able to build, and how quickly. The transition from mud to bricks then bricks to concrete, or the transition of lead to steel, then steel to plastic and other modern fabrications demonstrates the iterative process of innovation in the construction supply and materials space over the last couple of hundreds of years. The replacement of wood with more man-made fibres is an example of construction supply innovation that has ensured greater sustainability of ongoing global construction growth and reduced the need to cut down forests and consume our precious resources. Indeed - global construction is responsible for consuming upwards of 50% of the natural resources that are plundered from the earth each year. In this era of sustainability and climate change - much investment and resource is being pointed at developing more sustainable construction materials.

Reducing construction’s impact on the environment and increasing the amount of products available to meet global construction demand from the world’s growing powerhouses like China and India is no easy feat, but a critical pursuit if the human race is going to continue to develop the earth and its cities as it does today, or even at a faster pace to keep up with population growth. Sustainability is obviously at the core of this effort, as is developing materials that are stronger, lighter, safer and use less electricity or energy to provide heat or comfort to its human inhabitants.

  1. Self Healing Concrete
  2. Photovoltaic Film
  3. Robo-Exoskeleton
  4. Hydroceramics
  5. Illuminating Cement
  6. Wool Bricks
  7. CABKOMA Strand Rod
  8. Breathing Bricks
  9. 3d Graphene
  10. Translucent Wood

1. Self Healing Concrete: Overcoming the critical flaw of concrete (in a super unsettling way)

Here is a stat that will blow your mind - China has used more concrete in construction in the last three years than the USA has consumed in the last century. Concrete is still the most popular and prolific consumable in construction but it has a currently insurmountable flaw - it's prone to cracking under stress and heat. Many global innovators are tackling the issue of cracking concrete through a range of clever ways including combining concrete with living spores and bacteria. The bacteria, either Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii is found near lakes and volcanos and is able to survive for 200 years without oxygen or food, meaning you could essentially mix it with concrete and it could lay dormant inside walls of buildings. These bacterias are activated when they come in contact with water and when combined with calcium lactate as a food source, they produce limestone which closes up the cracks (how incredibly unsettling, creepy and wonderful at the same time). So, the concrete cracks, the concrete gets wet, the cracks fill with limestone and the cracks close themselves. Mindblowing! They’ve even developed ways to spray this mix of bacteria and calcium lactate onto existing buildings - but haven’t developed a cost-effective model yet (because the calcium lactate is super expensive). They are working on it!

2. Photovoltaic Film: Turn your building into a powerhouse (quite literally)

Photovoltaic film is a film that is rolled over every available service of a building to turn it into one enormous solar panel. The film is only 1mm thick and can be incorporated into concrete panels of a building and can double the solar production of conventional solar roofs, turning any building into a fully self-sufficient powerhouse (literally and figuratively). We are not aware if this film qualifies you for a government grant the way that solar panels do in Australia (but I suspect if you are considering covering your house in this uber-expensive stuff, you’re beyond needing the apply for government grants). Watch this space as more and more researchers turn their brain power to the conductive capacity of all buildings as an alternative energy generating source.

3. Robo-Exoskeleton: Lift 90kgs without grunting

Now there really is no excuse why more women aren’t hired into construction since we can wear robo-suits to make us much stronger! Some of the geniuses in Silicone Valley at a company called Sarcos Robotics have developed a robot exoskeleton device that wraps around your body and allows you to lift 200 pounds (90kgs) without breaking a sweat (or a back). It has 8 hours of battery life for a full workday of lifting and carrying (in your hi-vis super-suit). There are probably a handful of barrel-chested guys working on jobs sites in Australia that could lift that much without flinching (but not necessarily without long-term spinal damage) powered by 8 hours of Chico Rolls, so not sure if this suit will find a natural market here in Australia. Also - be aware of an increased likelihood of getting relentlessly teased in your yellow iron-man suit, or at least being socially isolated at work for being a ‘wuss’.

4. Hydroceramics: Way better than pink bats

Some very clever students in Spain developed a new type of brick that is made with clay and hydrogel (which is a chemical that absorbs water up to 500 times its weight). The absorbed water is released during hot days and is capable of decreasing the temperature inside a building by a massive 6 degrees Celsius. The scientists behind the project claim that these bricks will enable the building to act and adapt to its surroundings like a living organism - particularly the surrounding weather and temperature. I reckon that’s a bit rich, but coming from Townsville, my ears are entirely open to building materials that can make living in hot places more bearable (and much less sweaty). I’m sure there are heaps of people in Africa and The Middle East who agree with me. Bringing on the aircon bricks!

5. Illuminating Cement: No more street lamps

A guy called Jose from Morelia in Mexico will one day be a billionaire (if he remembered to submit his patent applications) for developing a cement that has the capacity to absorb light during the day and radiate it at night. Illuminating cement will allow builders of roads, runways and other flat concrete surfaces to save money on lighting and reflective products - the applications for road construction in particular are mind-boggling. It may even mean that the humble street light will be extinct one day (which, on mass, will be substantial power saving for planet earth). It's even conceivable that people will be able to build pools and footpaths with the materials in home construction (if Hugh Hefner were alive he’d be particularly pleased at a self-illuminating pool grotto).

6. Wool Bricks: Sheep and researchers unite

Yet another innovation from Spanish researchers working with an unlikely companion - the friendly and mild-mannered sheep. Something in the order of 9-10 billion bricks are manufactured each year, a process that has a substantial carbon footprint not least because of the kiln firing of bricks to give them their strength. The brick manufacturing industry is the second largest polluter of the earth behind vehicle emissions (of carbon and sulphur). So there is a large global push to improve the sustainability of brick production and materials.

Wool bricks have been developed by adding wool fibres to regular clay materials along with a ‘alginate’ conglomerate - which is a natural polymer extracted from the cell walls of seaweed. They are then naturally dried (rather than roasted in a kiln) and the result is a brick that doesn’t crack or warp. They are largely regarded to be stronger than unfired, stabilised earth bricks and when made with wool from local sheep, can officially be rated as a ‘zero carbon’ product. Not sure that the sheep think this is a great idea, but as a human that would prefer to live in a much less polluted planet, I think this is a great step forward in large-scale sustainable building materials.

7. CABKOMA Strand Rod: The future of seismic reinforcement

This rod is a thermoplastic carbon fibre composite rod - that saves buildings from earthquakes. They are essentially a bunch of carbon fibre noodles that are stretched at a high tensile and affixed to the ground to help a building resist the shock of an earthquake. The wires help the building resist the shaking motion of a large earthquake, saving the structure from rupture or collapse. The cables are thin and less of an eyesore than steel cables that are used on buildings that have a particular sensitivity to earthquakes (such as buildings used in nuclear plants built near seismic plate activity).

8. Breathing Bricks: No more need for trees

Trees have been the great filters of our air on planet earth, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. American researchers at California Polytech University have developed a ‘breath brick’ which is designed to form part of a building’s ventilation system and is built on the outside (yet insulated by a row of regular bricks on the inside). It has a cyclone filtration system (common in vacuum cleaners and my new Dyson hairdryer) that is capable of removing heavy pollutant particles from the air and drops them into a hopper at the bottom of the wall. This fresh air can then be delivered into the interior of the building or pushed back out into the atmosphere after being filtered. Early tests suggest that it can filter about 30% of fine particles (such as airborne pollutants) and 100% of course particles (such as dust). Unfortunately - there will be an increase in arguments with your mum, or the building body corporate about who has to regularly clean and dump the wall hoppers, but I would rather have those arguments than lung cancer, for example.

9. 3D Graphene: Nature's Origami

Graphene is a crystalline allotrope of carbon that can only be produced in 2 dimensions (ie, is only 1 atom wide). WHAT you scream! Ok, let me simplify this for the dummies in the room (including myself) - if graphene is packed layer on layer, it becomes ‘graphite’. Yes, it's a real brain bender and indeed carbon bender, but researchers all over the world have been obsessed by what they could potentially turn graphene into - particularly its application in 3D printing. First attempts to get graphene to occur into a 3D shape have produced weaker-than-desired structures, but researchers at MIT, Virginia Tech and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have been working together to print graphene into a weird DNA-style 3D shape that is 10 times stronger than steel. They have been able to print 3D graphene aerogels and foams - which is giving researchers the sense that we are not too far away from being able to print any device and any structure from graphene - that will be lighter, safer, stronger and more energy efficient than all the materials used in construction today.

10. Translucent Wood: Windows being made out of wood

If you had figured out a way to make wood transparent and many times stronger than glass, then you would probably keep it quiet. That’s what a bunch of researchers and patent owners have done when they figured out a way to make wood translucent and incredibly strong for use as windows and a myriad of other applications. It involves bleach, epoxy, lye and wood as the inputs and takes about 10 minutes to convert a thin piece of wood to translucent, or about 24 hours for a full log. The process also turns the wood into a highly efficient light diffuser - which diffuses light consistently and independent from where the sun is - which has the potential to light a room with very little sunlight as well as insulate the building in a better way. This may mean entirely shatterproof window fabrications (a relief for anyone who has put their footy through a window in childhood).