Self-healing concrete and metal cultivation becomes a reality
The scientific innovation permeates into manufacturing and building area. Blending the natural characteristics with everyday challenges can bring impressive results: concrete that can heal itself or metal that grows in the lab. How far can nanotechnologies bring innovation?
Concrete has been the main building material for centuries. Building with cement dates back to ancient Egypt as an infill material for pyramids. In terms of volume, it is the most used in the world. During three years period since 2010, China alone has used more concrete than the US in the whole twentieth century. WWF report claims that by 2030, urban growth in China and India will place global cement output at 5bn metric tons per year.
Regardless of its withstanding features, concrete production has an enormous carbon footprint and needs constant repairs. As reported by HealCON, EU annually spends up to €6bn on concrete maintenance. According to Bill Gates, "in the coming decades, the United States and China alone will need to spend trillions of dollars replacing and disposing of concrete laid down in the past generation". However, there are new technologies to fight this challenge.
Dr. Hendrik Marius Jonkers from Delft Technical University found the solution for expensive renovations by prevention and fixing small cracks on concrete. Turning to mother-nature, the Dutch microbiologist has found bacteria which transforms lifeless concrete into a self-healing material. Water penetrates the steel in the concrete and soon starts to rust creating the cracks in the concrete. Activated by water, This bacteria, Bacillus genus, starts eating the nutrient incorporated in the cement. This way, the bacteria is filling the cracks up to 0.8 mm wide, preventing it from bigger damage.
This particular innovation of self-healing concrete can be implemented not only as a new building material but also as a spray for existing small cracks and as a repair mortar for large damage. The future implementation of bacteria can be revolutionizing. As Dr. Jonkers points out: "It is combining nature with construction materials. Nature is supplying us a lot of functionality for free -- in this case, limestone-producing bacteria. If we can implement it in materials, we can really benefit from it, so I think it's a really nice example of tying nature and the built environments together in one new concept."
Besides the fact that cement is a core element of the city buildings, metal is a connecting junction for all sectors from real estate to aviation industry. The metal manufacturing process seemed to be rather straightforward and all figured out until Modumetal presented new nano-manufacturing of steel. Large heating stoves are replaced with electrochemical baths where electrons transit from iconic species into an actual piece of metal with no heat involved. It is the most cost-efficient and energy preserving manufacturing process of steel to date. Moreover, due to the nano-layering, metal is up to 10 times stronger than steel produced by conventional methods, and can resist corrosion for generations.
“You’re not melting metal inside of a metal vat. We produce metal in a plastic swimming pool,” explains company CEO and co-founder Christina Lomasney. “There’s no heat — it’s just current. We can change the electric field to create layers. Everything operates at near room temperature, which reduces the capital expense of manufacturing. And it means we are fully compatible with the operating temperature of plastic, so we can produce hybrid plastic-metal composites.”
In other words, Modumetal's innovative technology of growing sustainable, long lifecycle, growing metals, brings up manufacturing to the new level. Rapid implementation of new technologies and replacing of energy-consuming stoves will reduce energy use and carbon footprint worldwide. Moreover, similarly to 3D printing, growing metals can also become a home-based on-demand production industry.
Industrial manufacturing and real estate are on the edge of revolution. Executives should find a new fresh look on the manufacturing and building processes to offer new innovative sustainable solutions. Focusing on talent acquisition and the chemical properties of the materials will bring manufacturers to leading innovative positions.