Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Future Cities: Nanotechnology promises more sustainable buildings, bridges, and other structures

September 7, 2010

Scientists Pedro Alvarez (left) and Jaesang
Lee stand behind a concrete cylinder and
an I beam, which is among the construction
materials that manufacturers could potentially
improve using certain nanomaterials.
Credit: Jeff Fitlow, Rice University


Bricks, blocks, and steel I-beams — step aside. That’s because
scientists are reporting that a new genre of construction materials,
made from stuff barely 1/50,000th the width of a human hair, is
about to debut in the building of homes, offices, bridges, and other
structures. The new report highlights both the potential benefits of
these nanomaterials in improving construction materials and the
need for guidelines to regulate their use and disposal. The report
appears in the monthly journal ACS Nano.

Half of all humanity ― more than 3 billion people ― now live in cities, a figure which experts expect to increase in the future. As a result, society faces great challenges to provide adequate resources and services to these urban populations. Among them is the challenge of producing stronger, more sustainable construction materials for homes, offices, roads, bridges, and other structures that people depend on daily for shelter, work and transportation.

Surprisingly enough, the answer to this big challenge may be in the form of tiny particles that are only 1/50,000th the width of a single human hair. That’s right: We’re talking about the use of nanoparticles in construction materials. Bricks, concrete blocks, and steel I-beams could all be made of nanoparticles in the future, according to a study published in the American Chemical Society’s journal, ACS Nano.

Here is Dr. Pedro Alvarez of Rice University, lead author of the study:

“The Nanotechnology revolution is making a groundbreaking impact on a wide variety of science and engineering disciplines. Nanomaterials likely will have a greater impact on the construction industry than any other sector of the economy, except biomedical and electronics applications. Certain nanomaterials can improve the strength of concrete, serve as self-cleaning and self-sanitizing coatings, and provide many other construction benefits.”

Alvarez and his colleagues analyzed more than 140 studies on the benefits and risks of nanomaterials. They found that the materials can provide a wide variety of benefits for the construction industry, ranging from greater strength and durability to improved energy efficiency. Here again is Dr. Alvarez:

“The advantages of using nanomaterials in construction are enormous. When you consider that 41 percent of all energy use in the United States is consumed by commercial and residential buildings, the potential benefits of energy-saving materials alone are vast.”

The study also notes that there are growing concerns about the potential adverse health and environmental effects of nanoparticles. But Alvarez and colleagues point out that these problems can be reduced by engineering the particles so that they are eco-friendly and by developing strict guildelines to regulate the use and disposal of construction nanomaterials. Dr. Alvarez explains:

“The time for responsible lifecycle engineering of man-made nanomaterials in the construction industry is now, before they are introduced in environmentally relevant concentrations. There are ways to engineer materials in advance to make them environmentally friendly. There are also methods that allow us to consider the entire lifecycle of a product and to ensure that it can be recycled or reused rather than thrown away. The key is to understand the specific risks and implications of the product before it is widely used. This way we can ensure that nanotechnology evolves as a tool for sustainability rather than as an environmental liability.”

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Today’s podcast was written by Mark Sampson. I’m Adam Dylewski at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

Scientists Pedro Alvarez (left) and
Jaesang Lee (right) Image courtesy
of Jeff Fitlow, Rice University