Seven New Materials Could Change Buildings

There is a huge gap between material science and construction. It can take decades to move an engineering breakthrough from a lab to a building site. Yet as architects and engineers face bigger challenges – from earthquakes to dwindling resources to sheer cost – a new generation of smart materials is emerging.

Some of these materials are still far from reality outside the lab, but others are coming much more quickly. These concepts may move into actual construction in months, years or decades. The folks at offer a look at some of what may lie ahead.

Conductive Paint. A team from North Carolina State University and the University of Eastern Finland are developing a practical version of conductive paint that can sense cracks in a structure. In a study published in June, the researchers explained how the system works: First, electrodes are placed around the skin of the building. Then, the conductive paint is layered over them. After that, a current is run through the electrodes in different combinations, and a complicated algorithm can determine whether the electrical potential has changed – if it has, the system can work out where the problems have occurred. Such of paint could be invaluable for older buildings, or those in earthquake zones. It also could be used to monitor any structural fissures at nuclear power plants.

legobuildingSmart Bricks That Act Like Lego. Lego offers a brilliant solution to prefabricated architecture. Not only do they snap together quickly and leave zero extraneous waste, the holes could provide extra space for wiring, plumbing and even structural reinforcement. With that in mind, a company called Kite Bricks wants to use Lego as a basis for a real-world building material called Smart Bricks. Just like the toy, these concrete-molded bricks snap together with a layer of mortar-like adhesive. Holes in the bricks can be threaded with rebar for extra structural reinforcement. And one side of each brick can be removed to provide access wiring, plumbing and the like stored inside.

Carbon Fiber Rope. One major deterrent to the height of supertall buildings is elevator technology – at a certain height, the amount of steel rope needed to pull people upwards becomes too heavy, increasing the number of separate elevators needed to reach the top skyscrapers. Kone, a Finnish company, has developed an alternative: A rope made of carbon fiber that’s 90 percent lighter and could support elevators up to twice as high as the current limit. Called UltraRope, the material could enable elevators that are up to a kilometer in height. It’ll also change how elevators are serviced, since it will last twice as long as standard steel cable.

Plastic That Lights Up In the Wind. Mechanoluminescence is a phenomenon in which a particular material will light up when it’s put under some form of physical stress. In the case of this material, a team from South Korea’s Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology infused plastic with colored phosphors made out of copper-doped zinc sulfide. The combination results in a white light when put under mechanical stress. To take advantage of wind energy, the researchers molded the plastic into tubes – when the wind blows, the tubes deflect and the light appears. As for potential uses, imagine facades that light up in the wind, or beacons that glow to broadcast information about weather conditions.

Invisible Solar Cells. If you’ve ever sat inside a room that has photovoltaic panels on the windows, you know it’s easy to recognize the tell-tale, shimmering rainbow color of the cells. Researchers at Michigan State have developed an entirely different type of “solar concentrator” that can be layered over any window. The product takes advantage of non-visible wavelengths of light – ultraviolet and the near infrared – pushing them to the solar cells embedded at the edges of the panels. The result is a material that can make energy from sunlight in any number of practical situations. Examples might include gadget screens, windows and doors.

bambooforestBamboo That Can Compete With Steel and Concrete. Bamboo is inexpensive, it grows fast and it’s surprisingly strong. A team at MIT is studying how to make better use of bamboo in construction. Led by professor Lorna Gibson, the project is testing how and why bamboo is so structurally advanced. They’ve found that the material at the edges of a bamboo rod is actually denser and stronger than the stuff in the middle – and they envision using it to create a secondary building material, like plywood, to make houses and buildings that are stronger, cheaper and less environmentally impactful.

Wallpaper That Charges Your Phone. Sound can transmit energy and a new company called uBeam wants to turn that technology into a building product. A transmitter takes electricity and turns it into ultrasonic sound. A receiver on your wireless device captures that audio and turns it back into energy. You’d be able to charge any device while walking around your home. Right now, uBeam is focusing on putting its technology in wallpaper or a piece of art, but it’s easy to imagine how these transmitters could be embedded in all sorts of materials and places – an ambient web of ultrasonic sound that networks entire buildings.