13 January, 2021

The way previous generations imagined tomorrow’s world often tells us more about them than it does about us. Flying cars, meals reduced to dull looking pills and clothes made out of kitchen foil seem to be common themes. Even the most remarkable innovations in our own lifetime get absorbed into the everyday so quickly it’s easy to lose sight of quite how magical and transformative some are. It’s a point that occurred to me when the teenager at the supermarket checkout asked if I’d been alive before the internet was invented, and if so, how exactly had I managed to ‘you know, like - live?’ He had a point, but my recollection is that the great arc of human civilisation seemed to be moving forward at a reasonable pace up to then, and I certainly don’t remember sitting in idle frustration for weeks waiting for someone to invent something that would allow me to get on.

So, in the spirit of capturing the fleeting magic of innovation before it fades into the everyday, here’s a look at some of the most eye-catching developments in material science that will be coming to a building near you.

The futures a lot closer than you thinkHydroceramic is a smart material capable of responding automatically to changes in the environment. Developed by the Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia, the prototype product which helps to cool buildings and regulate humidity uses hydrogel, a material capable of absorbing up to 500 times its weight in water. It works on the principle of evaporative cooling and claims to reduce indoor temperature by five or six degrees, as well as saving 25% on running costs compared with conventional air conditioning systems. It’s function is proportional, so the hotter the temperature, the more it cools. Because hydroceramic panels absorb humidity and allow it to evaporate, it’s an appealing idea to describe this as the pathway towards the next generation of our buildings that will breathe for themselves and regulate their own temperature.

That takes us to phase change materials which transition to different physical states depending on the temperature. Sounds complicated, but if I say ice, water, steam, you’ll get it immediately. Water fails the Goldilocks test because the two transition points are too cold or too hot to be of use to us. But a material that changes from liquid to solid at room temperature, now that does have potential because the transition process absorbs or releases lots of energy. Practical applications include a dry wall product containing paraffin beads that respond to a rise in external temperature by drawing heat from the interior to transition from solid to liquid. So, when it gets hot outside, the inside gets cooler. The idea of using building mass for passive cooling isn’t new and is a widely adopted design principle but phase change materials offer a much more nimble approach because they can be incorporated into a wide range of building components like wall panels and ceiling tiles. 

Concrete is the single most widely used building material on the planet and its carbon footprint is an unattractive one. Now we can reduce the amount we use by extending its service life. All it takes is special bacteria added to the mix. Activated when water reaches it through the natural deterioration of the material over time, the bacteria produce calcium carbonate that heals the crack. Now the idea of using living organisms has taken a radical step further thanks to research at the University of Colorado. It is harnessing bacteria for something different. To make concrete itself. By creating an environment that allows the bacteria to grow and develop, it mineralises, like the formation of a seashell, producing a hard material with the innate strength needed to perform a structural function in our buildings. And that’s not even the best thing about it. The process of forming calcium carbonate actually removes carbon dioxide from the air. It’s early days but the idea of making a replacement for concrete that can be grown naturally and absorbs carbon dioxide has lots of appeal. Who knows, careers advice in the future may be offering opportunities for concrete farmers.

And if none of that is science fiction enough for you, this is what’s coming next. Graphene, ten times the strength of steel used as a building material, a national power network fed by vehicle movement passing over special road surfaces, and wholly autonomous construction. Recognising how advances in material science can change our lives so completely is worth a moment’s reflection, before the innovation is already part of our lives and we start to take it for granted. Like the internet.