Would you like to live in a place where building a house or an office is extremely cheap – or at least much cheaper when compared to the prices of today? A place which is both quiet and carbon-free? A place where houses can magically heal themselves?… Wait, what?! No mistakes there – and we haven’t even gotten to the strangest question. Now, would you be comfortable living in a building that’s made of… bones? OK, not real bones, mind you – that’s too creepy! Synthetic and artificially produced bones. But bones, still.
Nothing’s wrong with us. On the contrary, in fact. Just read ahead…
Whether we like to admit it or not, the world has changed. But traditional methods of construction – haven’t. It may be time to.
For one, people are rushing to the cities at an unprecedented pace. According to a WHO report from 2014, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, almost twice as much as 1950. The comparison looks even scarier in numbers: between these two years, the urban population has grown from 746 million to 3.9 billion! By 2050, it is expected that at least two thirds of the people will live in the cities. Only, there’s not enough space – even as it is.
The fact that many cities have become construction sites to accommodate the new inhabitants is not that good news – strictly environmentally speaking. It is estimated that the toxic waste produced during the manufacturing of steel and concrete is responsible for about 10% of the total worldwide carbon emissions.
And as if that is not enough, there are many economical disadvantages of using steel and concrete. Concrete, for example, is susceptible to shrinking and losing strength; concrete structures are typically massive and vulnerable to earthquakes. Steel, on the other hand, is not on good terms with either fire or rust – so, in its case, installing fireproof materials and frequent painting are essential when it comes to safety.
Given these factors, we need some better way to construct our future cities which eliminate many disadvantages of steel and concrete. And the scientists at Cambridge University may have found just the right material.
Oyen, one of the scientists working at Cambridge, with funding of US Army Corps, has constructed artificial bone and eg shells to be used as medical implants and even small building materials. She and her team works in the Department of Biomimetics, where it’s important to note that the term biomimetics literally means copying nature, life.
She believes that in order to truly change our environment for the better, we should consider completely revolutionizing our methods of construction. Lots of energy is wasted in the production of steel and concrete, with maintenance required even after building structures from it.
Oyen and her team argues that bone is a much better candidate to replace existing materials. For one, production is done at room-temperature, meaning very little energy is used and could be scaled up for mass production. And yes, bone can be broken and damaged just like any other material, but unlike other materials, bone has the property to heal itself naturally. Imagine, buildings repairing itself! Surely feels like a work of science fiction.
Bones and eggshells are extremely tough and having the unique property of self healing, which is the main reason why Oyen was inspired to create such a material. The self healing property can potentially save lots of time and billions of dollars.
As said above, production is also cost effective and easy. Bone is comprised of minerals and proteins, both in a roughly equal measure. The protein is responsible to increase the toughness of the material, while mineral is responsible for making it stiff and hard. But in egg shells, the proportions are quite different, with it having 95% minerals and just 5% proteins. But given its thinness, it’s still extremely sturdy and tough.
Admittedly, it sounds weird when you consider living in buildings made from bones and eggshells. The main source for this weirdly wonderful idea was nature, and this is exactly where the Cambridge researchers got their inspiration from:
“What we’re trying to do is to rethink the way that we make things,” says Michelle Oyen, Bioengineer at Cambridge. “Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems – they fundamentally do things differently.”
So, how do they actually make the artificial bone and eggshells from. Well, they use a protein called collagen which is the most abundant form of protein available. It is the animal tissue which is responsible for keeping bones intact and also have another wide use: the making of edible gelatin.
Now that they have the protein, they deposit minerals on the collagen which creates the synthetic material. All of this uses extremely low energy and there is no reason it can’t be scaled up to suit industrial needs.
“Just because we can make all of our buildings out of concrete and steel doesn’t mean we should.” Michelle Oyen, Bioengineer at Cambridge.
Adopting this new way of building is no easy task. All of our current science and knowledge about construction is based on the properties of steel and concrete. The construction industry will need to radically change their thinking, their process and their science. But most of all, they will need to change their will. Unless the industry accepts the need for new, sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of making buildings, ‘the city of bones’ seems far far away.
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