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.”

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The all new Factor Magazine is here – your guide to how today, tomorrow and beyond are being shaped

Guess who’s back, back again.

It’s been a few months, but Factor has returned with a bigger and better format, bringing the same future news and discussion, but on a platform that you can read on any device.

We’ve been working towards this for a long, long time: this is how we’ve always wanted the magazine to look, and we’re so happy to share this with you. It can be viewed on any web browser, on anything from a mobile to a monster PC, and if you’re on a desktop or laptop, click the button in the bottom right-hand corner for the ultimate shiny reading experience. A digital magazine has never looked this good. Probably.

Unfortunately that means no more iPad app, but as you can easily read the magazine from an iPad web browser, we hope you’ll agree that what we’ve gained is so much better than what’s been lost.

So anyway, here it is: the Winter 2017 issue of Factor, the first issue of the quarterly version of the magazine.

In case any of you are worrying about us publishing the magazine quarterly, trust us you don’t need to. We’ve produced the biggest issue of Factor ever, so packed with futuristic awesomeness, that we’ve had to divide it into three sections: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond.

Today deals with the futuristic present, as much of what we think of as ‘the future’ already exists today. We look at how humanoid robots are being employed as co-workers, hear from the legendary Richard Stallman about the vanishing state of privacy and discover how automation is already taking jobs. Plus, we take a light hearted look at the futuristic world of Mr Tesla, Elon Musk, and provide our festive present suggestions in a bumper futuristic gift guide.

Moving on to Tomorrow, and it’s all about the world of the next few decades, as technologies that are in development now reach fruition and seep into our everyday lives. We consider how flying cars are inching towards reality, with a look at both Lilium and the newly announced UberAir, and find out how driverless delivery may be the first true instance of the self-driving future.  Plus, we also look at the Christmas dinners of the future, because why the hell not.

Finally, in Beyond we look at the way-out future that many of us probably won’t live to see, but is supremely cool to think about. We ask leading futurists to predict what’s in store in the 22nd century – not the most positive of pictures, unfortunately – and consider what jobs will remain in a post-automation world. Plus, we look at the potential first homes of the human race beyond the solar system, and check out how asteroid mining is set to shape off-earth development.

Take a look, and if you like what you see and read, please share the magazine with your friends, or tell us what you think. This is a completely free magazine, with not an ad in sight, so it’s always good to know that it’s worth the effort.