New Material Trends to Watch in 2017

New innovations in renewable energy and building materials to track in the New Year.

Material forecasts typically consider factors such as potential industry growth, economic impact, and newsworthiness (i.e., surprising new discoveries) to predict the best innovations for the New Year. For my 2017 forecast of significant material trends, I’ve attempted to select technologies that address a combination of these criteria and offer unanticipated yet highly advantageous capabilities within established industries like cement, timber, and renewable energy. Assuming a successful path to commercialization and adoption, these offerings promise to influence the fields of design and construction this year and beyond.

Programmable Cement
As humanity’s most consumed substance after water, concrete remains a primary focus of material research and development. Despite its ubiquity, concrete still holds many mysteries awaiting discovery—such as the recent discovery that the cement in concrete carbonizes carbon dioxide over time, effectively redefining the material’s presumed environmental footprint. Such studies emphasize the need to better understand—and shape—the material at a molecular level.

A compelling recent example has emerged within the Multiscale Materials Laboratory at Rice University. Scientists there have discovered previously unknown principles of calcium-silicate-hydrate (C-S-H) cement particle behavior, and are employing this knowledge to program the particles in highly controlled ways. “We call it programmable cement,” said lead author and assistant professor of materials science Rouzbeh Shahsavari in a Rice University press release. “The great advance of this work is that it’s the first step in controlling the kinetics of cement to get desired shapes. We show how one can control the morphology and size of the basic building blocks of C-S-H so that they can self-assemble into microstructures with far greater packing density compared with conventional amorphous C-S-H microstructures.” Shahsavari anticipates this enhanced density will result in increased material strength and longevity and lead to better chemical resistance and protection of reinforcing steel inside the concrete.

Hardwood Cross-Laminated Timber
Another common building material that is receiving significant interest is wood. The construction industry is currently enamored with mass timber, based on the development of new methods for tall building construction using a rapidly renewable, carbon sequestering material that outperforms concrete and steel environmentally. Within the burgeoning field of softwood-based engineered lumber products, an unlikely contender has appeared: hardwood cross-laminated timber (CLT).

London-based DRMM Architects developed a CLT panel of rapid-growing North American tulipwood in collaboration with global engineering firm ARUP and the American Hardwood Export Council. Employed in the design firm’s “Endless Stair” for the 2013 London Design Festival—as well as the Smile installation by Alison Brooks Architects for the 2016 event—the material is now licensed to Stuttgart-based manufacturer Züblinunder the name Leno CLT. Unlike typical CLT, which consists of softwood spruce, the tulipwood version is much stronger—and even stronger than concrete by weight—and is considered to have a superior appearance. Furthermore, Leno CLT is made from a rapidly renewable feedstock and can be manufactured in extra large sizes—such as the 14-meter-by-4.5-meter panels used in the Smile.

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