The construction industry’s continuous improvement is vital to the development and growth of cities, towns, and other settlements. Researchers have developed technologies that can help this growth while combatting pollution and climate change and strengthening builders’ abilities to make structures soundly and safely. Here are a few ways these technologies might change construction.
How tools might change
Currently, the construction industry uses some pretty strong tools, and, with the release of the Caterpillar Next Generation range, it's developing some technologically advanced ones, too. But there are some more technologies in the works that could improve construction tools even more.
- Purpose: Building lighter, stronger vehicle parts and making objects wear-resistant and corrosion-resistant.
- How it works: Metal is melted so quickly that it doesn’t have time to arrange itself into a crystalline structure. So, metal atoms are organised in a random arrangement reminiscent of glass.
- Benefits: Metallic glass is lighter than other metals, with the malleability of molten glass and more strength than regular (crystalline) metals. Metallic glass stores and releases elastic energy better than other forms of metal, so it doesn’t deform as easily, making it extremely resilient.
Aggregated diamond nanorods
- Purpose: Building more wear-resistant saw blades, drill bits, and grinding wheels.
- How it works: Graphite is exposed to extreme heat and pressure, producing many tiny interlocked diamond crystals.
- Benefits: The tiny interlocked diamond crystals - AKA aggregated diamond nanorods - are stronger together than the single structure of a regular diamond.
There are reasons why humans use so much concrete - it’s cheap, efficient, easy to make, and very, very strong. But it has its problems, too - like concrete cracks, and being made with unsustainable materials. Some new technologies have been developed to change these problems.
- Purpose: Fixing roads and building more durable buildings.
- How it works: Bacteria that can produce calcite (limestone) are embedded with their food (calcium lactate) in concrete via biodegradable pods. When water gets into the concrete through a crack, the pod degrades, releasing the bacteria. The bacteria then eat the calcium lactate, multiply, and create limestone, which fills in the cracks.
- Benefits: The bacteria can last up to 200 years in the concrete given enough food.
- Downsides: At the moment the bacteria can only heal small cracks.
- Purpose: Concreting without traditional aggregates.
- How it works: Concrete is made from waste incineration ash instead of other aggregates.
- Benefits: Waste incineration plants will have somewhere to dump their ash, and concrete doesn’t need to be made using finite materials such as sand and gravel.
- Downsides: AshCrete requires the same amount of energy to make as traditional concrete, takes longer to solidify than traditional concrete, and is more susceptible to freeze/thaw cycles because it doesn’t trap as many insulating air particles as regular concrete.
Traditional brick-making emits carbon dioxide (CO2) through the process of firing. Though non-fired bricks do exist, they are generally less durable than fired bricks. Researchers have developed technologies to eliminate this problem, or at least make up for it.
Wool and seaweed bricks
- Purpose: Making non-fired clay bricks as strong as fired ones to be used for walls, small houses, and decorating.
- How it works: A mixture of wool fibres and alginate (a natural seaweed compound) is mixed into non-fired clay bricks instead of sawdust. The alginate will bind the brick components instead of sawdust, while the wool fibres will increase the strength and structure of the brick.
- Benefits: Wool and alginate non-fired clay bricks can withstand double the pressure of traditional non-fired clay bricks, at 4.4MPa, compared to the traditional 2.3MPa. Wool and seaweed are also two very sustainable materials.
Pollution absorbing bricks
- Purpose: Building to passively remove pollution from outside air.
- How it works: Each brick has a cyclone air filtration system which creates a super-fast spiral vortex inside the brick, taking in pollutants from outside, and sending them to the bottom of the vortex into a hopper. The recycled plastic couplers between the bricks help align them and allows air to get into the centre of the bricks and the filtration system. They let clean air into the building via a traditional ventilation system.
- Benefits: Pollution-absorbing bricks trap 30% of pollutants and 100% of coarse particles in the air they touch.
- Downsides: They are still made of traditional brick materials and fired with traditional methods.
Some alternative building materials
While some researchers have invested in developing technologies to improve existing tools and materials, others have looked further into the future to technologies that could replace them - including materials that don’t cause extra waste when buildings are replaced.
- Purpose: Building with biodegradable building materials.
- How it works: Organic material such as soil and shells are inserted with mycelium (a type of fungi) and formed into a brick mould. After five days, the mycelium grows dense enough to make a brick.
- Benefits: Once the structure is no longer needed and is demolished, the mycelium bricks can become soil again in under 60 days. The mycelium can be gathered from agricultural waste including from corn and wheat.
- Downsides: Mycelium bricks can handle only about 0.2MPa of pressure, which is 1% the strength of concrete. Mycelium has to be combined with other materials to be viable for building.
3D-Printed carbon blocks
- Purpose: Building with reusable building materials.
- How it works: A carbon-reinforced epoxy mesh is printed from a 3D printer.
- Benefits: Epoxy meshes are extremely resistant to erosion and damage. After a building made with carbon-reinforced epoxy mesh is no longer needed, builders can reuse the epoxy mesh for the next building. It can withstand 12.3MPa of pressure, which is enough to be used to build houses.
- Downsides: Carbon-reinforced epoxy mesh takes a lot of natural resources to make, and takes a long time to biodegrade. The only environmentally friendly thing about it is its reusability.
While these technologies to improve our tools, concrete, bricks, and other building materials all vary in accessibility and viability in different places, they are all subject to what scientists call the “valley of death”, which is the period between when investors stop paying for the technology’s development, and when companies actually start buying and using it. The construction industry is notoriously slow at picking up new technologies - and for good reason. The industry needs to be really, really sure that new technologies work just as well as old technologies before putting them into practice.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for these new inventions. Already, humans build cities with a variety of different materials and tools for different purposes. The vast range of new technologies to improve tools and materials, even if the industry doesn’t pick it up straight away, give builders more and better options to use in the future.
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