Engineering New Materials for Construction

Nearly everyone remembers the story from their childhood about three little pigs and one big, bad wolf. When building their homes, two little pigs choose to use materials that are easily blown over by the wolf, which sends them running for cover. In the end, they are saved by the third little pig, who used superior construction materials that the wolf couldn’t blow down.   The story is a classic, but it also has deep roots in the world of construction materials. The story represents an age-old dilemma that many builders and contractors face when it comes to designing new buildings. What are the correct materials to use in each given construction situation? And are there better or stronger materials out there that would lead to a better-finished product? Fortunately, yes.   As our society hurtles into a new age of development and technology, new construction materials and opportunities are popping up all over the place. As these new materials become more incorporated into everyday building construction, building improvements and designs that we never previously thought possible are becoming a reality.    Creating a New Reality  Of course, coming up with new ideas and working to see them through to fruition is no easy task. It can take years to determine if a new way of using a material — or a new material altogether — is capable of meeting the safety standards necessary to become construction grade. This involves designing procedures and lab testing how materials perform under specific conditions before ever considering bringing a new product to market.  The professionals who are charged with this task are typically materials engineers. They have been educated to work closely with different chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers; however, they are typically more focused on testing how materials perform/deteriorate under certain conditions and coming up with solutions. Ultimately, these professionals are working behind the scenes to produce and validate many of the materials we have come to depend on.   Creating new materials and finding new ways to utilize old ones is not without some level of risk. Many of the materials need to be exposed to several harsh chemicals, extreme temperatures, radiation, or other forms of testing. This can lead to workers being exposed to these chemicals and injured by skin irritation, eye exposure, and more. Safety precautions are of the utmost importance in determining if these materials can stand up to the many tests they may face in the real world.   building-g7f2db03ea_1920 - 350x350   Out with the Old, In with the New  The new materials that these engineers are designing and eventually putting out on the market are anything but the same old concrete, brick, and mortar. Rather, they are a vast array of different woods, plastics, and metals. Some of them have become mainstream, such as synthetic building materials, while others seem to still be limited to specialty homes and unique environments.   One of the things that many of these new materials have in common is weight-to-strength ratio. Nearly all new materials boast being many times stronger than steel while weighing significantly less. This means that fewer materials will be needed and buildings will be lighter, stronger, and more sustainable which can increase their durability.   One prime example of this is cross-laminated timber. Laminated timber is a type of building material that prefabricates timber by gluing boards at 90-degree angles to increase strength and water resistance. The finished product is both lighter and stronger than steel. The material is currently used for mid-level skyscrapers and is estimated to reduce a building’s carbon footprint by 150 tons per story.   A Greener Future  Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the entire industry is the development of more sustainable materials. Many of the newer developments strive to substantially reduce carbon footprint, increase efficiency, or utilize more renewable resources in their design. All of this adds up to greatly improve the “greenness” of newer buildings that incorporate these materials.   For example, utilizing new materials rather than concrete can greatly reduce environmental impact. In fact, concrete is one of the most significant contributors to the planet’s carbon footprint. Because of this, nearly anything that can provide the same building strength can be considered an improvement.   Although concrete in and of itself may not go away any time soon, several materials designs incorporate other, more sustainable things into concrete. For instance, self-healing concrete is infused with an enzyme found in human blood which allows it to fix cracks all on its own and extend its life. This reduces the need for new concrete to shore up older construction.   We’ve come a long way from building homes out of straw and sticks and even simple bricks. New building materials are stronger, lighter, and more sustainable than many of us ever thought possible. The power of innovation in materials engineering is incredible and poised to take us into a bright new future. 

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Adrian Johansen

Adrian Johansen is a writer in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She loves sharing information with others, learning along the way! You can find more...

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