By Andrew Armstrong

Super-materials come from exciting research on micro-level materials and molecular structures. These new materials may represent the future of new building materials due to their unique physical properties. Here’s a basic overview of the science behind  three of these new materials. We’ll also discuss how the construction industry could use them.

Fractal Nanotrusses

At the California Institute of Technology, Professor Julia Greer uses computer-aided designs to produce new super-materials she calls “fractal nanostructures.” Researchers create these structures to meet specific criteria, such as improved plasticity, better strength, or lighter weight.

These structures challenge the idea that density and strength go hand-in-hand. Typically it’s true that heavier materials like steel have greater strength and durability than lighter materials. But, through adjustments made to lighter materials at the nanoscale, researchers can make some metals up to 50x stronger. Similarly, they’ve found that materials containing 99% air can have shocking strength and durability.

Less Weight, More Strength

This new technology could lead to stronger cars made from lighter materials that require less energy. Professor Greer suggests that it might one day be possible to build an electric car so light, you could lift it with your hands. And, for construction, these same new building materials could radically improve the strength of load bearing beams and trusses, while drastically reducing their weight.

Tool manufacturers could use nanostructures in batteries by applying the technology to silicon. Enhanced batteries would weigh far less and would greatly out-perform current models. Using similar materials in photovoltaics would make solar cells more efficient.

Nanocrystals

Another exciting material creating a lot of buzz is nanocrystals. Nanocrystals are tiny crystalline particles 100,000 times thinner than a human hair. Today’s researchers use the special optical properties of these tiny objects to create ‘smart’ windows.

Nanocrystals in smart windows use voltage to control the amounts of heat and light passing through window panes. In summer months, smart windows will repel more heat and light. In winter months the windows will allow more heat and light to pass through. The long-term energy savings from using these new building materials would offset the added costs says Jason Holt, president of Heliotrope Technologies.

“In a commercial application, if dynamic windows enable you to eliminate blinds and downsize your HVAC system, the cost premium can be substantially offset. We think our manufacturing-cost advantages can reduce the premium for dynamic windows to the point where you’re essentially cost neutral with high-end conventional windows.”

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Aerogel Insulation

Aerogel insulation is another super-material that could generate big gains in the energy efficiency of buildings. The foam weighs very little and boasts excellent insulating properties because of its extremely low heat conductivity. Aerogel has these properties because the structures within it are very thin. The overall composition of aerogel insulation is about 90% air.

Aerogel insulation works well in homes, but has even greater potential for industrial sites.  When added as insulation blankets, it helps existing buildings become more energy efficient. Aerogel also works well on oil and gas pipelines and is so reliable that the Mars Rover spacecraft reportedly used it.

How It’s Made

To create aerogel insulation you begin by making a cell just one-unit in size. Then, you repeat the process until an entire structure is finished. You create the insulating structure based on the properties desired for the particular application. You can make aerogel very stiff, very light, or even to offer negative thermal expansion. The end result is thinner and more efficient insulation.

Futuristic, super building materials may have a major impact on the construction industry. They have the potential to reduce fuel consumption, increase productivity, and ensure safety. While many of the applications of these technologies currently exist in theory, the pace of progress is impressive. Developments suggest that these new building materials may be coming to a construction site near you very soon.

How do you see super-materials impacting the future of construction? Or, do you know of some that are already changing things up? Let us know by leaving a comment.

About the Author

Andrew Armstrong is a construction technology enthusiast and digital strategies consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area.