Nanotechnology in Construction

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 24, 2006 1:05 pm    Post subject: Nanotechnology in Construction Reply with quote

The size of the Construction Industry globally is enormous and a good example of this is that 1m3 of concrete is produced every year for every person in the world. Given such a large business and the huge amount of fixed assets necessarily dedicated to designing, constructing and maintaining in the tried and trusted fashion, there is considerable inertia against change. Nanotechnology, as a potential prime driver of change in all industry, will inevitably come up against this inertia as it tries to influence, and perhaps even revolutionize, the whole construction process.

At the level of construction materials, an area of great interest is the study of concrete, which of itself is a $35bn worldwide business. Several studies are under way on the cement/ water reaction and some even involve the introduction of CNT’s as fibre reinforcing. Other studies are investigating the possibilities of self-healing concrete using embedded capsules of sealant which break open and fill any cracks in the concrete surface. Still further research involves the use of so called “smart aggregate”. This concept involves the use of MEMS being cast into the concrete bulk material which then provide information on the state of the structure or even traffic movement in the case of roadways.

Steel, with its reliance on carbon as an alloying element is an obvious candidate for the introduction of CNT’s and work on high strength, high toughness steels is an on-going area of research.

Another area of research is in the timber industry. The cellulose nano-fibrils that compose timber are 25% as strong as CNT’s and yet have the potential to be much cheaper and completely natural. Construction materials made of “harvested” nano-fibrils without the defects associated with natural timber could produce remarkable changes in the construction market both for homes (the traditional major user of construction timber) and commercial buildings and other structures. Further research is being done on the possibilities of making wood products for construction both super-insulating and even photovoltaic. The structure would then not only be made from a renewable resource but also be a source of renewable solar energy.

The use of “nano-dust” or “speckled computing” (nano-sized detection systems) is an exciting prospect both for the monitoring of civil works – in which levels of strain or other information can be determined on a surface wide basis – as well as in the field of building environmental and lighting detection and control. The concept of building wide monitoring of heat, light and air quality opens up the prospect of much more efficient allocation of resources.

All of these potential uses of nanotechnology in construction feed into an enormous impact on architecture and hold the promise of exciting new and sustainable buildings and civil works. As well as the obvious effects of stronger, lighter materials on the structural possibilities, wide area monitoring and environmental control will make for huge changes in the mechanical and electrical systems (as mentioned above) with the related impact on architecture. Currently available super-insulating paint, based on nanotechnology, is already being used to reduce the environmental impact of building energy use and further research is being done on coatings that would change colour to suit the owner’s preference. In addition, the prospect of facades of photovoltaic glass will open up new avenues for sustainable architecture.

Despite its natural inclination to be a laggard in the adoption of advances in science, the several trillion dollar/year construction industry will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of nanotechnology. This will be particularly apparent on the materials and applications front, as described above, but parallel advances being made in the fields of computing and even biology will also impact construction significantly. The effects of IT have already transformed the entire process from design to construction to maintenance and even more profound changes will occur with the increases in processing power being predicted as a result of nanotechnology. Concerns about the possible side effects of nanotechnology in the biological realm will mean careful attention will have to be paid to any dangers posed by the release of nano-materials into the environment and this work will need to be as open as possible to avoid any public misconceptions.

Surinder Mann
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