Thursday, 2 May 2013

Future materials debut at Ecobuild

A version of this article appears in the new issue of Sustainable Building, for which I provide feature  articles monthly. You can see details of this Newzeye publication at: 


Future materials debut at Ecobuild

By Dr David Lowry

At Ecobuild 2013, held in March at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London docklands, there was a centrepiece Innovation Zone stand featuring fascinating future materials for building and interior decoration, backed by the Technology Strategy Board,  business green innovator, Marks & Spencer, and the facility consultant architects.

Around the exhibition, many companies displayed their new products and innovations. Some, such as green roofs and  porous paving stones have already secured their niche markets.

But others, such as from foreign suppliers,  the Argio “clever brick” from Belgium, BatiPack cavity  blocks  made from Oriented Strand Board (OSB4) structural panels from France, and TPE environmentally-friendly lightweight, anti-static and anti-percussion  foaming materials made from polymers by the Microcell Composite Company in Taiwan, as well as UK  supplied  Hybrid  insulation panels by Chippenham -based Actis Insulation, Nanofloor vacuum insulation panels, which can take up  to five times less space, by Shropshire –based Nanopore, are breaking through in the new greener marketplace.

In a keynote session in the conference on “New Creative Horizons”, several cutting edge researchers and developers explained their breakthrough technologies.

Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at design consultants Seymour Powell, in arguing for a “circular economy” - a programme driven by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF)  - pointed out that it was not only  new materials, but recycling  existing  materials that made  materials use smarter and more sustainable, revealing that currently floating in the Pacific ocean is a plastic bottle slick the size of Texas, which is a big pollution problem, but  could be put to recycle use.

The EMF is sponsoring Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, to give the keynote speech on the “circular economy”, on 19 June at the Royal Institution in  London.

Sherwin described some exciting developing trends, including use of biomimicry to grow furniture to order; smart carpet tiles that restore air quality, developed by commercial carpet specialist, Desso; and next generation thermostats, to redesign behaviour beyond materials.


Several ministers attended Ecobuild, and toured the exhibition as well as delivering speeches. It is a pity therefore that Communities minister for housing, Don Foster,  subsequently told  Labour MP Paul Flynn ( in a  written answer on 18 March) that DCLG  has “made no assessment of the use of bio-mimicry techniques to develop sustainable materials for use in the building construction sector.”
Dr Sascha Peters, ce of Haute Innovation in Berlin, who pointed out that 70% of all innovations are based on new materials, showcased a series of natural building materials developed by award-winning German manufacturer, Organoid Technologies,  including corn board for lightweight construction, wall panels from rice shells, fibres grown from mushrooms to make packaging materials, bricks from tea powder, and lamp shades from coffee grains
Dr Peters argued that “organic interest has jumped from supermarket to the factory,” giving examples such as garden furniture covered with cellulose  bacteria to make it  more weatherproof.

Other new materials discussed were light reflecting concrete (Blingcrete), new cellular metals (Hollomet), and textiles from tree bark (Barkcloth).

Dr Nick Grace, head of rapid prototyping at the Royal College of Art, unveiled  innovative uses of 3D printing  in manufacture of  new materials, revealing the liquid materials currently being developed are as valuble per unit of liquid as Dom Perignon champagne. But he warned the present  software and  print machines are  not smart enough to understand 3D instructions.

In discussion, which also included Chris Wise of Expedition Engineering,  it was agreed that it was better to  be design than materials driven in construction, and that “sustainability  needs to  be woven into design.”

More information can be obtained via the Modern Built Environment  Knowledge Transfer  Network


Science and Higher Education minister, David Willetts, said in a written answer that the UK has made a major contribution to graphene research, since its discovery in 2004 and the Nobel prize for Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov of Manchester University in 2010. The Government is investing £60 million in graphene, of which £38 million will be used to create a National Institute of Graphene Research at the University of Manchester.

Professor Novoselov, who is closely involved with the new institute, insists the money for it should not be diverted from Government funds for basic research, observing  “Scientists should be given freedom of their research, and once the new breakthroughs are identified, they should be given additional funding to advance it into technology.”

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have also invested £10 million on linked manufacturing processes and technologies. Universities will be working with industrial partners including Dyson and BAE who are expected to provide an additional £12 million. We expect UK universities and businesses to benefit from the new €1 billion investment in graphene by the EU, Professor Geim added.

Graphene is a two dimensional material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb or chicken wire structure. It is the thinnest material known and yet is also one of the strongest, 200 times stronger than steel. It conducts electricity as efficiently as copper and outperforms all other materials as a conductor of heat. Graphene is almost completely transparent, yet so dense that even the smallest atom helium cannot pass through it.

There are currently about 400 UK  graphene patents and some 4000  Chinese.

Source: Hansard, 7 February: Column 385W

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