Posts Tagged ‘Technology and Innovation’

The self-healing concrete that can fix its own cracks

June 29th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The self-healing concrete that can fix its own cracks” was written by Rosie Spinks, for theguardian.com on Monday 29th June 2015 06.00 UTC

Of all the carbon emitters that surround us every day it’s easy to overlook one of the most ubiquitous: concrete.

The material that builds our buildings, paves our roads and spans our bridges is the most widely produced and consumed material on earth apart from water, according to a WBCSD report. By 2030, urban growth in China and India will place global cement output at 5bn metric tons per year, with current output already responsible for 8% of the global emissions total, according to a WWF report.

Although its environmental impact is far from benign, concrete – defined as the mixture of aggregates, water and the hydraulic powder material known as cement – is incredibly useful and widely applicable. Thanks to its durability, easily-sourced raw materials and thermal resistance, it is unlikely that an alternative building material will replace it on a large scale any time soon.

Hendrik Jonkers, a microbiologist at Delft University and a finalist at the recent 10th annual European Inventor Awards, has a plan to increase the lifespan of concrete. His innovation, which embeds self-activating limestone-producing bacteria into building material, is designed to decrease the amount of new concrete produced and lower maintenance and repair costs for city officials, building owners and homeowners.

Jonkers’ self-healing concrete marries two fields: civil engineering and marine biology.

“One of my colleagues, a civil engineer with no knowledge of microbiology, read about applying limestone-producing bacteria to monuments [to preserve them],” Jonkers said. “He asked me: ‘Is it possible for buildings?’ Then my task was to find the right bacteria that could not only survive being mixed into concrete, but also actively start a self healing process.”

When it comes to Jonkers’ concrete, water is both the problem and the catalyst that activates the solution. Bacteria (Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii) are mixed and distributed evenly throughout the concrete, but can lie dormant for up to 200 years as long as there is food in the form of particles. It is only with the arrival of concrete’s nemesis itself – rainwater or atmospheric moisture seeping into cracks – that the bacteria starts to produce the limestone that eventually repairs the cracks. It’s a similar process to that carried out by osteoplast cells in our body which make bones.

Healing these cracks the old-fashioned way is no small expense. According to HealCON, the project working on the self-healing concrete, annual maintenance cost for bridges, tunnels and other essential infrastructure in the EU reaches €6bn (£4.2bn) a year.

The invention comes in three forms: a spray that can be applied to existing construction for small cracks that need repairing, a repair mortar for structural repair of large damage and self-healing concrete itself, which can be mixed in quantities as needed. While the spray is commercially available, the latter two are currently in field tests. One application that Jonkers predicts will be widely useful for urban planners is highway infrastructure, where the use of de-icing salts is notoriously detrimental to concrete-paved roads.

Encouraging as it sounds, Jonkers’ self-healing concrete can’t cure very wide cracks or potholes on roads just yet; the technology is currently able to mend cracks up to 0.8mm wide. And while making better concrete is a more feasible approach to sustainable building than shifting to an entirely new building material, that doesn’t mean the innovation is a sure bet. The current cost would be prohibitive for many. A standard-priced cubic meter of concrete is €70, according to Jonkers, while the self-healing variety would cost €100.

John Alker, director of policy at the UK Green Building Council, says the success of any new green infrastructure technology relies on innovators like Jonkers being able to demonstrate the particular benefit of a product, whether that’s around cost or enabling a client to meet environmental targets.

“We’ve seen a lot of innovation around concrete as it is a highly impactful product in terms of the energy that goes into producing it and it’s simultaneously a very important construction product globally,” Alker said. But persuading the construction industry to change its behaviour will be tough, he says. “It comes down to innovative clients and developers being willing to experiment with their building and try and test these materials and prove a track record before others will follow.”

Though Jonkers is aware of the challenges of reaching wide adoption of the material, he points out that in particularly vulnerable environments – such as coastal communities or tropical regions that are increasingly experiencing extreme rainfall – some are already seeing the cost-benefit analysis of using this technology from the outset.

“We did a project in Ecuador where we made a concrete canal and irrigation system with self-healing concrete,” Jonkers said. “We are doing tests all over the world in developing countries where they realise that though this is more expensive than current tech, they see the profit because they will have to avoid repair down the line.”

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The streets were paved with algae: a greener material?

June 11th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The streets were paved with algae: a greener material?” was written by Rich McEachran, for theguardian.com on Monday 8th June 2015 12.38 UTC

The process of surfacing a road isn’t complicated. Layers of asphalt, which is composed mostly of bitumen (a byproduct of crude oil distillation), are poured over an aggregate of crushed stone and sand; the asphalt acts as a glue, binding the mixture together to form asphalt concrete.

Maintaining the roads, however, is a costly job. According to the Asphalt Industry Alliance it would cost more than £12bn to restore all road networks in England alone to a reasonable condition.

Simon Hesp, a professor and chemical engineer at Queen’s University in Ontario, believes standard industry asphalt is not sustainable. “The problem with the composition is that it’s poorly controlled … it uses materials with poor performances,” he says. Hesp says the presence of certain oil residues lowers the quality of the concrete and is a key reason why roads are failing and many potholes need to be filled and cracks fixed.

But there’s not just a maintenance cost. Asphalt, dependent as it is on the oil industry, is resource- and energy-intensive, which is why the race is on to develop a greener alternative.

In Sydney an experiment is under way using printer toner waste blended with recycled oil to produce an environmentally friendly asphalt. And in the past few years there have been studies into the development of non-petroleum bioasphalts.

At Washington State University researchers developed asphalt from cooking oil, and last year academics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that lignin – a natural substance found in plants and trees – is another suitable replacement for crude oil bitumen. Other investigations have looked into the use of soybean and canola oil (rapeseed oil) and coffee grounds.

The WSU research, led by Haifang Wen and published at the end of 2013, concluded that the introduction of cooking oil can increase bioasphalt’s resistance to cracking . Wenn also claims it’s possible that, if commercialised, such bioasphalts could cost much less per tonne. The price of standard asphalt can fluctuate wildly as it’s dependent on the price of oil.

Hesp isn’t convinced that cooking oil is the way forward. He says, like petroleum, over time it will cause roads to fail because of weak bonds.

Bruno Bujoli, director of research at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), agrees that the use of cooking oil “chemically modified to reach appropriate mechanical properties” could significantly affect quality. He also sounds a note of caution about food security, saying that asphalt based on vegetable oils could, if scaled up, affect food stocks

Bujoli recently played a key role in developing a bioasphalt from microalgae. It uses a process known as hydrothermal liquefaction, which is used to convert waste biomass, including wood and sewage, into biocrude oil. The chemical composition of the microalgae bioasphalt differs from petroleum-derived asphalt, but initial tests have concluded that it also bears similar viscous properties and can bind aggregates together efficiently, as well as being able to cope with loads such as vehicles.

How it will perform over time is yet to be determined. The findings were published in April.

Green roads

Bujoli suggests that microalgae – also known for its use in the production of cosmetic and textile dyes – is a greener and more appropriate solution than agricultural oils. The latter, he says, should be kept for food production.

“The benefits of microalgae over other sources include low competition for arable land, high per hectare biomass yields and large harvesting turnovers. There is also the opportunity to recycle wastewater and carbon dioxide as a way of contributing to sustainable development,” he adds.

It’s a neat idea, with an admirable green mission behind it, but how much of an impact can it really have? Technology such as this is still in its infancy, suggests Heather Dylla, director of sustainable engineering at the National Asphalt Pavement Association, a US trade organisation for the paving industry.

“A lot of interesting work is being done in this area, looking at everything from algae, to swine waste, to byproducts from paper making. It’s worth exploring these alternatives, but we need to be sure they provide equivalent or improved engineering properties. We need to understand how they affect the recyclability of asphalt pavement mixtures,” she says.

She points to the “unique” advantage of asphalt when it comes to recycling. “Not only are the aggregates, which make up about 95% of [asphalt concrete], put back to use, but the bitumen can also be reactivated and used again as the glue that holds a pavement together.”

Microalgae could yet put the paving industry on the road to a greener future. For now though, there are plenty of challenges – from price to scalability – for Bujoli and his team to address if the bioasphalt is to be commercialised.

“This is our research focus for the near future. Our current laboratory equipment works in a batch mode,” explains Bujoli. “Scaling up the process will require the design of a large-volume reactor that can operate under continuous flow conditions.”

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Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology

April 21st, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology” was written by Marcus Alexander Thompson, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th April 2015 11.41 UTC

1. What is a smart machine?

It’s a cognitive, contextually aware computing system capable of making decisions without human intervention. Smart machines use machine learning and data catchments to perform work traditionally conducted by humans. They are supposed to boost efficiency and productivity, and are being pegged as a major component in building a sustainable future.

2. The range of possibility for sustainability applications of smart machines is endless …

But, like all burgeoning technologies, the limits of sustainability within this future are not yet clear. Much will be based on which smart technologies society adopts. What we do know is the smart tech revolution is the first industrial movement that holds sustainability at the forefront of its development, and that’s a good thing.

3. We don’t need to kill the forest to save a tree

Replacing manual services with smart tech is expected to significantly reduce energy consumption. But the energy required to develop, build, run and service smart technology products must be considered. This video about two men cutting grass demonstrates the redundancy of overcapitalising on technology and the dangers of manufacturing a dependancy on regressive technology.

“While I believe, in general, that we’ll save energy by incorporating these machines into our lives, we have to be mindful that they themselves consume energy”, says Marshall Cox, founder and CEO of Radiator Labs.

4. Will smart technology make us stupid?

The successful integration of smart technology will see the enhancement of creative thought. The workforce will need an increasing skill level as more and more mundane work is overtaken. There are concerns that through automation and algorithm technology, human development could be stunted and lulled into complacency. It’s important to be aware of this threat. That said, there were similar fears heading into the industrial revolution and we work harder now than ever.

Philip van Allen, interaction designer, educator and creative technologist says: “There’s a lot of potential here, smart doesn’t always mean super intelligent. If our systems can understand our context, and have access to a lot of relevant information, they can present us with interesting options.”

5. They took our jobs! What are the implications of smart machines in work?

Reducing the human workforce to subservient drones isn’t in anyone’s interest, but it’s unlikely that progress will spiral out of human control. The aspirational focus is for smart machines to enable us to be more productive and flexible. By using them we can make more efficient, sustainable use of our resources.

“From a workforce point of view, smarter machines make us more productive and this allows us to focus on value-added activities”, says Maria Hernandez from Cisco Systems.

6. Technology makes errors, but so do humans

Performance failure is raised as a frequent concern whenever smart tech is involved, especially when we are looking at self-driving vehicles and other sectors where human life could be directly affected by smart machines. There is an argument that the systems should be intelligent enough to work out areas of poor performance and correct themselves. But nothing is fail-proof and it would be naive to think smart tech will be. There will be bugs in the beginning, but hopefully the collateral eggs in this omelette are minimal.

In the best-case scenario, we’ll combine smart technology with the agility of human decision-making to make sustainable and safe decisions. For example, says Chris Bilton, director of research and technology at BT, “The machine provides you with real-time information and you have the choice as to what action to take. This makes you think actively about your behaviours”.

7. It’s coming. Evolve or move aside

Hate it or love it, be prepared for smart technology to become a much bigger part of your life. It offers unbounded potential to improve our lives and enhance sustainability from all angles – home, health, manufacturing, work, transport, energy and leisure. But we also need to address issues such as IT security, skills and labour market problems. At the forefront we need to ensure that smart machines are enabling devices and not controlling mechanisms.

“The intelligence needs to be implemented in a way that augments our creative thinking rather than replaces it, and we need to consider where those boundaries lie,” says Stephen Barker, head of energy and environmental care at Siemens.

In the end, human capital must always remain dominant. “One might say that our humanity is found in what lies between a 1 and a 0,” says Jeff Wilson, dean of Huston-Tillotson University and “professor dumpster”. “That ‘in between’ is not within a machine’s capability. To me that ‘in between’ space will be ours”.

The technology and innovation hub is funded by BT. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

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Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue

April 9th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue” was written by Alison Moodie, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th April 2015 17.29 UTC

For decades now, the residents of Tokyo have been coming up with novel ways to save space – tiny apartments, skyscrapers stuffed with miniature living quarters and hotels where rooms contain little more than a pull-out shelf with a bed. Now, the rest of the world’s big cities may need to start doing something similar.

Growing populations, coupled with housing shortages, are changing the way urban planners, architects and builders are thinking about living spaces. And in the US, one solution lies in modular fabrication.

Modular structures use pre-manufactured units – homes, apartments or offices – that are built in a factory and transported, usually fully built, to the building site, where they are assembled using a crane. Proponents say these “mods” could offer big cities a sustainable path forward.

Building homes in a factory instead of on-site, the theory goes, can yield more standardization, offering potentially safer and more energy efficient – and environmentally friendly – construction. But the extent to which modular buildings offer long-term sustainability solutions to environmental and social housing issues remains unknown.

New developments such as the My Micro NY and Atlantic Yards projects in New York City are the first examples of modular communities: small apartment units made in factories that, once completed, are stacked readymade at the building site, much like Lego pieces.

“[Modular buildings] will be an important innovation that spreads to many urban markets with high real estate values,” said Elisabeth Hamin, department head for landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

When My Micro NY was announced, the mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, highlighted the environmental benefits of the new building. “Modular construction is faster, less expensive, allows for high levels of quality control and significantly reduces waste and truck traffic,” he said. “It’s also safer for workers as construction is done inside in controlled environments.”

Modular construction isn’t a new concept. A version of it has been used in the US as far back as the 1800s; a century later, American families could order a house from a catalogue and assemble it themselves, Ikea-style. But what is new is putting completed units together to form towering high-rises in big cities.

According to the Modular Building Institute (MBI), a nonprofit trade organization, the modular construction of lodgings – including condominiums, apartments, hotels and housing for workers – grew by 31% between 2012 and 2013.

“Demand for multifamily is very high currently,” said Liz Burnett, communications manager at MBI. “Young people are moving out of their parents’ houses, and older adults are seeking smaller homes with less upkeep.”

Millennials are looking for smaller, more affordable and more sustainable living spaces, Hamin said. But in expensive cities like New York, few affordable options exist for those who live alone. And with the city’s increasing housing shortage, condensing more units on one site makes good business sense.

“[Modular construction] is a realistic option for both creating more units in the always-in-demand real-estate market of Manhattan, but also as less costly approaches to affordable housing in the outer boroughs,” said Jorge Mastropietro, a partner at Jorge Mastropietro Atelier in New York.

“Because of the nature of cities like London, Mexico City and Tokyo, for example, people are willing to live in smaller spaces so long as they are maximized for efficiency and have other desirable amenities.”

The My Micro NY Project is the city’s first micro-unit apartment building, consisting of 55 units measuring between 270 and 350 square feet. Currently, each prefabricated apartment is being constructed offsite at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a company called Capsys Corp, and will be assembled in early June in the Kip’s Bay neighborhood.

Tom O’Hara, a director at Capsys, said he has seen an increased interest in modular construction in the last four to five years.

“We have been contacted to review and explore dozens of projects from many of the city’s most prolific developers,” he said.

The structures are built off-site in a carefully controlled setting, which can result in less construction waste and air pollution, as well as quicker – and less expensive – construction.

Prefabricators like Capsys are capable of producing one module per day, or 35,000-square-feet per month, from their assembly lines, according to Petr Vancura of structural engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek. A building that would otherwise take 24 months to complete through typical construction might take only 15-18 months to deliver using prefabricated modules.

Modular high-rises could also go some way to alleviating New York’s housing shortage, and could help current mayor Bill de Blasio towards his goal of building 200,000 affordable units over the next decade.

“I believe such units may relieve pressure at the lower end of the market and improve communities by allowing lower income households to have a presence in the inner cities again,” said Oliver Grimshaw, UK sales manager at Hanse Haus GmbH, one of the largest builders of pre-manufactured homes in Europe.

“As a result, it would reduce emissions from commuting, increase quality of life and enrich city life.”

However, New York’s ambitious Atlantic Yards project calls the efficiency of modular housing into question. The development, recently renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn, is envisioned as 16 modular apartment blocks. But work was stalled in August on the first building after a bitter disagreement over costs between the complex’s developer Forest City Ratner and its partner, Swedish company Skanska.

Forest City announced last month that it would resume construction on the 32-story tower called B2, but the project may take four years to complete, and not two years as originally planned. The next towers will likely be built via conventional construction, instead of modular, Forest City said in announcement made last spring. Forest City CEO and President MaryAnne Gilmartin said in a recent interview that modular is “an ongoing experiment” that “needs to be validated with a standing building”.

While modular buildings may make green sense during the construction phase, their long-term sustainability is less clear, especially in urban areas. The main issue is adaptability, said Renee Chow, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley.

“They are difficult to fix over time, they don’t hold changes in lifestyle well nor do they accommodate changes in uses,” she said.

In a city like New York, famous for its continual reinvention, modular buildings might not allow people to remain part of a community as their lifestyle changes.

“Think of all the cities we like that have endured yet still hold modern ways of living and uses,” she said. “Will the modules do the same?”

The technology and innovation hub is funded by BT. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

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The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home

March 20th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home” was written by Elisabeth Braw, for theguardian.com on Monday 16th March 2015 13.49 UTC

Imagine living in a house that contributed to society: a house that produced energy, while consuming none itself. Well, imagine no more. After perfecting the “passivhaus”, which consumes minimal energy, engineers and architects have developed the energy positive house.

Generating energy is one thing, building a house is another. But with its plant-decorated walls and enormous double-glazed windows, the ArchiBlox Positive House, introduced in Melbourne’s City Square last month, looks elegant and modernist. “The trick is to make the sustainable and performance products visually pleasing while also practical,” reports David Martin, construction director of the ArchiBlox Positive House – the world’s first pre-fab energy positive house.

Rooftop solar panels and cooling tubes generate energy and regulate the temperature, while double-glazed windows and thick walls conserve energy. The end result: surplus power.

Energy producing house diagram
How an energy-producing home works. Photograph: Snøhetta

The ArchiBlox team is not alone in successfully completing the energy positive challenge. The German city of Königsbrunn, working in collaboration with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and a local gas and electricity company, is finalising the cube-like Visioneum in the central square, where city officials hope its presence will inspire residents to think about their household energy consumption.

At the University of California, Berkeley, students working in collaboration with Honda have developed yet another concept, the Honda Smart Home, which looks more like a typical terraced house, but which generates surplus energy the same way as the ArchiBlox and the Visioneum: by radically conserving it while generating more than it needs though solar panels.

Students at the Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have invented a highly innovative “skin” that can be attached to existing houses with similar results. And in Norway, architecture firm Future Built has managed to turn two ordinary office buildings into energy-generating ones, cutting their energy use by 90% through additional insulation and the use of sensors to control light and heating. Here, too, solar panels on the roof provide energy that can be sold back to the grid.

With cars and homes accounting for 44% of greenhouse gasses in United States (and similar percentages in Europe), it’s no surprise that researchers and architects are trying to find ways of making homes more energy-efficient.

“The development of smart technologies, like the Google Nest, is making energy savings more convenient for users by allowing for control over temperatures in the house while you are away from the house, and allowing temperatures to follow your daily routines”, notes Esben Alslund-Lanthén, an analyst at the Danish sustainability thinktank Sustainia.

ZEB house
The ZEB house. Photograph: EVE

Kristian Edwards says building a plus-house is technically straightforward. “We calculated how many square meters of solar panels we needed and optimised the angle of the roof to get maximum solar yield,” he reports. “But plus-houses are also about minimising energy consumption, so we used as much recycled material as possible, such as whole bricks from a barn nearby.” With its box-like wooden top floor slanted over the lower floor for maximum sun exposure, Snøhetta’s experiment – the ZEB Multi-Comfort House, located in the Norwegian city of Larvik – boasts a visually striking appearance.

There’s just one thing: the cost. “Cost is always a factor when building houses that are taking advantage of the newest technology”, notes Alslund-Lanthén. “Plus-houses will likely remain more expensive than conventional houses, but on the other hand the owners will benefit from lower utility bills throughout the lifetime of the house, and in many cases from added benefits such as a better indoor climate due to improved ventilation, more daylight and better insulation.”

But Edwards, an architect at the Snøhetta architechture firm in Oslo, argues that plus-houses don’t have to be expensive, noting that a ZEB-style house may only cost 25% more to build than a similar, newly-designed home. The dropping cost of photovoltaic cells will also aid the advance of plus-houses.

Either way, utility companies are currently developing new payment models that will allow home owners to pay back the cost of the new technologies through energy savings. Other plus-house owners may opt to sell their surplus energy to the grid. At the ZEB house, in turn, surplus energy will power the electric car that future residents may own.

What’s life in a plus-house like? Norwegian families have volunteered to test the ZEB house for three months each and will report their findings to Edwards and his Snøhetta colleagues. And David Martin is about to find out for himself, having signed up to live in his ArchiBlox construction with his young family for the next 24 months.

The technology and innovation hub is funded by BT. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

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