Promising new materials

New materials can be quite fascinating. Although some of them are not completely new but re-invented, which is often done by integrating things nature does by itself. Dezeen has a great list of ten future materials that could change the way we build. Favourites in this list: 3D-printed mycelium, hemp rebar, and carbon-sequestering Carbicrete (ok, the last one might be in part because it’s from a Montréal company).

Also at Dezeen, a deeper look at the work of Charlotte Böhning and Mary Lempres who have developed a bioplastic version of polystyrene foam that is made from the exoskeleton of mealworms, and breaks down in soil in a couple of weeks.

Chitofoam can be cast or injection-moulded into shape, much like Styrofoam, but Böhning and Lempres are currently still testing whether the material has the same thermal insulation properties that would allow it to be used to store hot foods and drinks. […]

As Chitofoam is a thermoplastic it can be melted down and reformed into new products, or placed in soil where it decomposes in two to three weeks.

Or what about taking on food waste and fashion pollution with fungi? A team of researchers from the University of Borås in Sweden “has harnessed a bread-eating fungus to convert food waste into materials that look and feel just like leather, cotton, and paper.”

… an innovative solution to tackle the enormous environmental impact of both food waste and fashion pollution. Besides providing an economical use for food waste, the fungal materials will use far less water and energy than their conventional counterparts, and will be faster to make.

As we all know by know, our society produces a lot of plastic, and the stuff is now pervasive all around the planet, as the finished products, as waste, and even as microplastics making their way into human blood. Lokendra Pal and Lucian Lucia, professors in the Department of Forest Biomaterials at NC State have discovered how to convert leftover sawdust powder and agro-residues into a Styrofoam-like packaging material, and similar processes could replace other plastics.

[A] production process that doesn’t require water. Instead, the researchers mechanically sieve, grind and mix sawdust with agro-residues to form a powder. The powder is then combined with a binder before it’s casted or molded into an item. […]

Also, because the researchers are utilizing sawdust, the production process is virtually zero-waste and zero-emissions. Sawmills and similar operations usually dispose of their leftover sawdust by burning it. This not only ends the life cycle of a valuable byproduct, but it also produces the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

The question then, is whether these materials are scalable enough to replace existing solutions and make a difference. But first, they have to make it to market and be used in real projects. Rose Eveleth had an excellent Flash Forward podcast episode on cement, which included a good primer on how materials (and things like nuts and bolts) go through certification and adoption.

Like many things, it’s not necessarily the invention that’s the hardest part, it’s pushing through paperwork, lobbies, and ingrained habits.

Image: Becky Kirkland/NC State, Pal and Lucia have created several proof-of-concept items from their newly developed biomaterial, including LEGO bricks and chess pieces.