For millennia, building materials such as concrete have allowed for humans to create lasting masterpieces of architecture; just look to ancient Rome for examples. While one might think that over the course of this time we would have learned all there is to know about such building materials, re-assessing them through a modern lens has allowed for companies looking towards the future to give them new purpose and improve on ancient recipes.
Materials and Processes
As mentioned, ancient Rome is the perfect example of what can be achieved through use of concrete. Until recently though, scientists were baffled as to how structures dating from more than 2000 years ago were still in such good condition. Now, we know that the answer was front and center all along – lime.
The presence of lime in Roman concrete was always thought to be the result of shoddy/poor mixing practices. As it turns out, the resulting lime clasts have an important purpose which, when infused in the concrete in a specific manner, allowed for the end product to self-heal cracks; which brings us to our first modern take on an ancient building material – self-healing concrete.
Concrete is simply a mixture of fine and coarse substrates mixed and held together by a hardener. The recipe to make concrete has varied through time, and around the world, to accommodate differing environments. With that in mind, scientists have begun researching and trialing new recipes/approaches to creating an iteration built for the future. One example of this comes from the University of Colorado, where scientists have developed a potential concrete replacement which they call ‘Living Building Materials (LBMs)' that are created by utilizing “photosynthetic microorganisms to biomineralize inert sand-gelatin scaffolds”.
Promisingly, these LBMs have shown the ability to not only self-replicate and self-heal, but can be made from waste materials. Equally as important, is their ability to capture carbon. Beyond durability and longevity, there is one major reason for the time being spent on developing new recipes for futuristic concrete – the environment.
The production process to make concrete emits a large amount of CO2. As the second most used product on Earth, this results in a massive amount (8% of total CO2) emissions. If we can potentially create iterations of concrete that actually help the environment as opposed to hurt it, then it is a path worth exploring.
Beyond ongoing research in labs, startups like Biomason are already offering products built off of a similar approachs that use biology as a means of minimizing the cement industry's environmental footprint. To date, this company has already generated ~$95M in funding over multiple rounds from investors like Novo Holdings, Celesta Capital, and more.
Rebar is an extremely important material used when building with concrete. Typically made out of steel, rebar provide structural support to concrete buildings and increased longevity. As previously stated though, working with concrete typically means large CO2 emissions. What if there was a way to create rebar that helps offset this issue without sacrificing the positives of steel? Enter Hemp rebar.
Hemp rebar not only functions to increase the longevity of concrete, it can be cheaper, stronger, and lighter than steel while remaining corrosion-free; all important considerations, as the collapse of many buildings are associated with heavy and corroded steel rebar. It also known as a carbon-negative biomaterial, with growing fields absorbing huge amounts of CO2. When used in applications such as being made in to rebar, the product over its lifecycle can work to counteract CO2 emissions associated with use of concrete.
Energy Storing Bricks
Concrete isn't the only building material that is undergoing a futuristic revamp. Processes to turn regular and recycled bricks into supercapacitors are now being developed. This means that in the near future, the bricks lining your home or serving as a walkway may serve as an energy storage solution. Simply hook up the bricks to an energy source (ie. solar panels), and the bricks can be charged to provide power during nighttime hours. It should be noted however, that as it stands the technology has a way to go before this is possible. Currently researchers indicate that the capacitance of roughly 50 bricks would provide enough power for emergency lighting only up to 5 hours.
To achieve this feat, researchers considered the inherent structure of bricks, noting that they are quite porous. To turn them into supercapacitors, the bricks were coated/injected with PEDOT (a conductive polymer), that essentially turn the brick into an energy sponge.
These are the kind of solutions, that when combined with a continued and concerted push towards sustainable energy, will allow for humans to reverse the damage being to the the Earth, and ensure greener future.
Looking to the future of building, there is more to it than just the materials used. There are also the processes to consider. With this in mind, one of the most promising and potentially game-changing leaps forward set to change the way we build is additive manufacturing aka ‘3D-printing'.
ICON is a particularly notable company to watch, as its products/services are more than just a high-potential idea; they are already being put in to action. In one example, a 100-home community comprised of 3D-printed homes by ICON is already underway in Georgetown, Texas. In another, and arguably more exciting example, ICON was awarded a $57.2M award from NASA to develop a ‘lunar surface construction system'. Yes, ICON is developing the systems that will allow for habitation of the Moon and beyond in 3D-printed structures.
The promise behind 3D-printed homes is such that companies like ICON have already attracted substantial funding from forward thinking investors. As of its latest capital raise, ICON now boasts ~$451.5M in funding.
ICON isn't the only company 3D-printing homes though. Others like Alquist are leveraging the process to create affordable housing in an effort to “lift economically distressed and under-served communities by lowering the cost of building,”
The year is 2033. If all has gone as planned, there will be those that step out of their self-healing, hemp rebar reinforced, 3D-printed home that is powered in the night by a brick walkway charged throughout the day, and look up to the night sky. There, they will see dots of light coming from vast arrays of satellites, deployed through use of reusable rockets which are also delivering payloads of material for the first structure being built on the Moon.