December 4, 2009
Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk
‘Living’ paint a green solution
You’d think I’d be used to it by now. All these decades of making a living using words should have conditioned me to new words, new meanings for old words, new twists to an old language. But once in a while, a new phrase or usage can still bring me up short.
The other day I saw a lady carrying a black fabric shopping bag emblazoned with the words This Bag Is Green.
It’s been quite a while since “green” was just a colour. Now it’s a verb, an environmental catch-all, a state of mind.
That’s why sober scientists who measure everything they say, can use phrases like “living materials” or ‘living buildings.” Huh?
These are phrases that come up among those researching (and reporting on) nanoscience, the science of the incredibly small. I’ve written about it before, because as the science evolves, there are two sectors of our society — health care and construction — that seem likely to benefit the most from the work of engineers who work at the molecular level.
Nanoscience has already made possible the development of self-healing materials and material coatings for our industry. It’s given us new polyurethanes for use in traffic crash barriers and guardrails that absorb shocks, then rebound to their original shapes. You’ll see them soon in places like bridge abutments, and along concrete barriers that separate lanes of traffic.
The list goes on. But most intriguing, perhaps, is the work being done on “smart” paints that will someday protect our buildings and improve the quality of our air.
A preview of what they might do was given recently by Rachel Armstrong, who teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London
She said that “living materials,” if used by architects, could make a significant contribution to the control of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“Our buildings offer a huge engineered surface area on which we could develop new applications, especially biological ones,” she said. “We’ve been building with the same Victorian technologies for so long, now it’s time to try something new.”
She acknowledged that “adapting biological materials to create ‘living’ buildings may seem outlandish,” but if the problems can be solved, those materials would give architects the ability to “make the connection between artificial structures and natural ones.”
Nanoscientists have been exploring what they call protocell systems — simple, self-replicating nanomaterials that can perform useful tasks. These are new, simple “life-forms,” and scientists have already proven they can be grown.
They’re not really creating life, though. The people doing this work are scientists, not gods. But they need a metaphor to describe what they do. Hence phrases like “living materials” and “living buildings” and Armstrong’s prediction that these materials might be painted onto building surfaces
“We aim to program protocells to make carbonates from carbon dioxide, thus acting as a carbon sink,” she said. “This would be the first step toward developing a ‘smart’ surface coating (for buildings) that could extract carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the environment.”
There’s a lot of work being done on protocell assembly. In the United States, the Los Alamos National Laboratory has a technical team working on it with other U.S. and European research institutions. Armstrong’s work is part of that.
There are so many problems developing from our dependence on fossil fuels and the increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, that there will be no single solution, no silver bullet, that is going to solve them all. But it’s intriguing to discover the possibility that a coating that can be painted onto our buildings could one day be at least a part of the solution.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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