The city that Mother Nature built

Unfortunately, we’ve chosen to build our cities out of two completely unsustainable materials: steel and concrete. If we want to lower carbon emissions we are going to have to invent new materials pretty quickly. Could looking to nature hold the key? We find out more

Pretty much ever since we stopped using branches and twigs to build homes, we’ve thought of concrete and steel as the materials of choice when it comes to construction. But these materials are responsible for as much as a tenth of worldwide carbon emissions, so we have two choices: either we start producing steel and concrete in more energy-efficient ways, or we create new building materials to take their place.

Ask the US’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or University of Cambridge bioengineer Michelle Oyen what they think the cities of tomorrow will be made of, and they might answer bone, bark, egg shells or spider’s silk.

DARPA and Oyen are part of a growing movement that sees biomimicry, or the principle of seeking sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, as the future of construction.

The benefit of letting nature guide our construction techniques is obvious. For example, despite knowing its cost to the environment we use steel because it’s really good at taking tension, but spider’s silk is stronger than steel and more flexible – because it is a perfectly designed composite of proteins. It makes sense then that we stop using steel and prop buildings up with spider’s silk; apart from anything else who wouldn’t want to live in a city that looks like Spiderman has had a particularly busy night of webslinging. The reason we don’t is because the construction industry is set in its ways, and we believe we can ‘green’ steel. But why bother when nature has already given us a better alternative?

Disrupting construction

“The construction industry is a very conservative one,” said Oyen in a statement. “All of our existing building standards have been designed with concrete and steel in mind. Constructing buildings out of entirely new materials would mean completely rethinking the whole industry. But if you want to do something really transformative to bring down carbon emissions, then I think that’s what we have to do. If we’re going to make a real change, a major rethink is what has to happen.”

Featured image courtesy of eVolo

Featured image courtesy of eVolo

If we want to move to a more sustainable future then some of our preconceptions about construction are going to have to be disrupted. The principal assumption that has to change is: just because we can make buildings out of concrete and steel, doesn’t mean we have to or we should. The cement industry, for example, is one of the world’s most polluting, accounting for 5% of man-made carbon-dioxide emissions each year, as making and transporting concrete puts a massive burden on the environment.

There seems to be little desire to change. Retrofitting old kilns to improve thermal efficiency could lower concrete manufacturers’ energy usage by two-fifths, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, but even this would only represent symbolic greening.

What is needed is drastic change, and what could be more dramatic than replacing concrete and steel with bone? While bone cities may seem haunting at first glance, bone is stronger than steel, and just one cubic inch of it can bear a load four times greater than concrete. Bone gets its strength from having a roughly equal ratio of proteins and minerals – the minerals give bone stiffness and hardness, while the proteins give it toughness or resistance to fracture. Bones also have the advantage of being self-healing, which is another feature that engineers are trying to bring to biomimetic materials.

DARPA’s living materials

The US’ research agency, DARPA, has already realised that living materials provide many advantages, as they can be grown where needed, self-repair when damaged and respond to changes in their surroundings. The agency has recently launched the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) programme to create a new class of materials that combine the structural properties of traditional buildings with the added benefits that living systems provide.

Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources

“The vision of the ELM programme is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM programme manager, Justin Gallivan. “Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

Being able to construct with living materials could offer significant benefits; however, DARPA has commenced its ELM programme because it concluded that scientists and engineers are currently unable to easily control the size and shape of living materials in ways that would make them useful for construction. But Oyen and her team at the Oyen Lab (which came into being in 2006 at Cambridge University’s Engineering Department) have been constructing small samples of artificial bone and eggshell, which they believe could be scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials.

Oyen’s laboratory

“What we’re trying to do is to rethink the way that we make things,” said Oyen. “Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems – they fundamentally do things differently.”

Oyen cites eggshells as an example of nature doing something totally different that we can mimic. “If you look at a chicken, they go from zero to eggshell in 18 hours,” said Oyen in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s almost a millimetre thick, 95% ceramic and it has this organic component that makes it very tough. The whole thing has been put down in an extremely short period of time, at an ambient pressure and at body temperature, barely above ambient temperatures.”

Nature has already given us an idea of the kinds of resilient and sustainable materials that could be used to build the cities of the future. Oyen’s eggshells are already much more resistant to fracture than manmade ceramic. The experiments being carried out by Oyen and DARPA will hopefully contribute to the construction industry taking the way nature creates sustainable structures and putting this knowledge into practical use. Then we may well see skyscrapers made out of bone and eggshell.

factor-archive-28“From a timeline perspective,” said Oyen, “for the last 10 years we’ve been trying to figure these things out. We’ve probably still a few more years to go and then maybe the following decade will be taking all the things we’ve learned and being able to apply them to making new materials.”

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.