Mutant Materials: Latest materials and how designs can evolve around them

The world needs superheroes. What are superheroes? Those extra-developed human forms, which swoop in and save the city like Superman does! Or Spiderman who weaves his cobweb to catch villains: they save our lives on the movie screen. But what if these mutations were real? What if they are actually happening in real life, and that too in our own architectural field? Let us have a look at mutant materials: the materials of the future!

1. Kevlar

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Material mutation: Staying cool when things get heated

Imagine having a building that protects a building like the entire team of Avengers does! One of such materials, Kevlar is a heat-resistant and strong synthetic fibre, related to other aramids such as Nomex and Technora. Developed by Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont in 1965, this high-strength material was first commercially used in the early 1970s as a replacement for steel in racing tires. Typically it is spun into ropes or fabric sheets that can be used as such or as an ingredient in composite material components.

The spectacularly unsuccessful roof for Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, designed by architect Roger Taillibert with engineer Luc Lainey around 1976, featured a dramatic leaning tower and Kevlar-fortified retractable fabric spans. The overpromising monument took a decade to complete and only survived another ten years. In the real world, architects favour Kevlar for two reasons, and both are about performance: It’s lightweight and easy to integrate. A thin blanket can serve as structural reinforcement or ballistic protection, everywhere from seismic shear walls to bank counters. Sprinkle the fibres into carbon composites to cut weight and boost strength: The grades Kevlar 49 and 149 are the lightest and most robust; Kevlar 29 is comparable in potency to glass fibre but weighs less.

The fact is, Kevlar and its aramid cousins can and should revolutionize how we build.

2. Cigarette butt bricks

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Material mutation: Saving the world, one cigarette butt at a time

There are about 6 trillion cigarette butts produced every year, creating about 1.2 trillion tons of cigarette butt waste. Trillions of butts end up in the environment as litter every year, many making their way into waterways and those numbers are expected to increase by as much as 50% by 2025 as the world population grows.

Cigarette butts are more than just pesky litter, their filters contain heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, nickel and cadmium and since they take many years to break down, that gives those metals plenty of time to leach into the soil and water.

An engineer at RMIT University in Australia, Dr. Abbas Mohajerani, has come up with a way to recycle cigarette butt waste into something that could help the environment instead: bricks.

“I have been dreaming for many years about finding sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution,” said Mohajerani.

He and his team found a way to incorporate cigarette butt waste into brick making that not only gets that waste out of the environment, but it also makes cheaper and less energy-intensive bricks. When cigarette butts are added to clay bricks, the energy needed to fire them was cut by up to 58%. The bricks were lighter and were better insulators, too, meaning they could help cut household cooling and heating demands, all while keeping the same strength properties as traditional bricks.

When the cigarette butts are fired in the bricks, the heavy metals and other pollutants are trapped and immobilized in the solid block so they can’t leach. “Incorporating butts into bricks can effectively solve a global litter problem as recycled cigarette butts can be placed in bricks without any fear of leaching or contamination,” said Mohajerani.

Mohajerani estimates that if just 2.5% of the bricks made worldwide every year incorporated just 1% cigarette butt waste, it would offset global cigarette production. They’d be cheaper to produce thanks to the energy savings, which increase as the cigarette butt content increases, and they’d remove a source of pollution from the environment.

3. Glow in the dark cement

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Material mutation: Cement which has the superpower of glowing in the dark

After nine years of work, Jose Carlos Rubio, a scientist at Mexico’s University of San Nicolas de Hidalgo, has patented glow-in-the-dark cement.

He has managed to alter the manufacturing process of the cement so it is able to absorb energy from sunlight and then radiate that energy back out.

Rubio believes it will pave a new way for lighting cities, streets and buildings without using electricity. The only thing emitted during its production is water vapour.

It was a long process but his work has paid off, the cement is designed to glow for 12 hours straight and last for up to 100 years.

Emitting blue and green light, the cement’s brightness can be adjusted depending on what it is used for.

Its applications are very broad, and those which stand out most are for the architectural market: facades, swimming pools, bathrooms, kitchens, parking lots, etc. It would also be useful in road safety and road signs, in the energy sector, such as oil platforms, and anywhere you want to illuminate or mark spaces that don’t have access to electricity since it doesn’t require an electrical distribution system and is recharged only with light.

4. Breathe Brick

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Material mutation: Filtering pollutant materials from the air

Pollution is a problem we seldom need to explain. With cities growing multifold, we as Architects need to find more sustainable solutions to the issue.

The Breathe Brick is designed to form a part of a building’s regular ventilation system, with a double-layered facade of the specialist bricks on the outside, complemented by a standard internal layer providing insulation. At the centre of the Breathe Brick’s function is cyclone filtration, an idea borrowed from modern vacuum cleaners, which separates out the heavy pollutant particles from the air and drops them into a removable hopper at the base of the wall. The system is composed of two key parts: concrete bricks, and a recycled plastic coupler, which both helps to align bricks and creates a route from the outside into the brick’s hollow centre. The concrete bricks themselves feature a faceted surface which helps to direct airflow into the system and a separate cavity for inserting steel structure. The Breathe Brick can function with both mechanical and passive ventilation systems, as the brick simply delivers filtered air into the wall plenum; this air can then be delivered to the building interior through mechanical equipment or through trickle vents driven by passive systems such as stack ventilation.

the system was found to filter 30% of fine particles (such as airborne pollutants) and 100% of coarse particles such as dust. As the entire system is relatively inexpensive, Trudell suggests the Breathe Brick as a way to lower pollution levels in developing countries, where the rapid expansion of industry and less stringent environmental regulations often cause problems.

5. Hydroceramic walls

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Material mutation: Creating walls which breathe and give you AC-like cooling

Air Conditioning is not a particularly eco-friendly technology. Though it cools down the room you’re sitting in, but the energy used (around 200bn kilowatt hours of power per year in the US alone) contributes to global warming.  As the planet gets incrementally hotter, the effect will be depressingly self-perpetuating: hotter air will result in more AC usage, which will create more heat, ad infinitum.

The technology uses a substance called “hydrogel”, which absorbs water and can swell to up to 400 times its original size. When the air around the hydrogel heats up, the water evaporates, which cools the air around the gel by around 5° Celsius. The mechanism’s not dissimilar to the way our body cools itself down by evaporating water from the skin’s surface in the form of sweat.

The walls are created from two ceramic layers separated by bubbles of a hydrogel, a substance that can swell up to 400 times its original size by absorbing water. What happens is, when the air around the hydrogel heats up, the water evaporates and cools the surrounding air. The technology actually works similarly to the way our bodies cool us down by evaporating water in the form of sweat.

Although still in the prototype phase, the walls can either replace air conditioning units or work in conjunction with them. Using the two together would allow you to set your AC around seven degrees Fahrenheit higher than you normally would when you’re looking to achieve a comfortable temperature on a hot summer day. This would cut power usage by 28% and would reduce carbon emissions by about 56.5kg a month on most units, according to City Metric.

6. Translucent wood (OTW)

Image source: | Photographer: Peter Larsson c

Material mutation: Wood which is as translucent as glass, but acts like wood

Homeowners often search for ways to brighten up their living space. They opt for light-coloured paints, mirrors and lots of lamps and ceiling lights. But if the walls themselves were transparent, this would reduce the need for artificial lighting.

Recent work on making transparent paper from wood has led to the potential for making similar but stronger materials.

Dr. Lars Berglund of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s Wallenberg Wood Science Centre and his colleagues wanted to pursue this possibility.

“Transparent wood panels can be used for windows, and semi-transparent facades, when the idea is to let light in but maintain privacy,” Dr. Berglund said.

Transparent wood is also a good material for solar cells since it’s a low-cost, readily available and renewable resource. This becomes particularly important in covering large surfaces with solar cells. The optically transparent wood is a type of wood veneer in which the lignin is removed chemically.

The scientists removed the lignin – a structural polymer in plants that blocks 80 to 95% of light from passing through – from samples of commercial balsa wood. But the resulting material was still not transparent due to light scattering within it.

To allow light to pass through the wood more directly, they incorporated poly(methyl methacrylate), also known as acrylic or Plexiglas. They could see through the resulting material, which was twice as strong as Plexiglas. Although the wood isn’t as crystal clear as glass, its haziness provides a possible advantage for solar cells. Specifically, because the material still traps some light, it could be used to boost the efficiency of these cells.

Among the work to be done next is enhancing the transparency of the material and scaling up the manufacturing process.

Materials are the palette from which design ideas are born. We can be sure that with these innovative materials, the entire game of design will change. They are also helpful in reducing the carbon footprint and thereby adding value to our designs.

About the author:

Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.

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