Is materials science daring to lighten construction forever?

Is materials science daring to lighten construction forever?

How lightweight can we build our buildings today? Is it possible to just account live loads and basically reduce dead loads to almost none?
Steel construction has become one of the fastest and economic technology for construction. Although concrete construction is heavier than Steel construction because it requires more mass material, steel is heavier if it is balanced for the same amount of materials compared to concrete. We have learned about new technology options, like concrete mix combined with aluminum dust, making it lighter; the award winning technology Bubble-deck, making slabs even lighter and today it is time for the curious super-material: Graphene.

Graphene enlarged 6000 times

Graphene enlarged 6000 times

Graphene is a super material derived from the commonly used Graphite. Discovered by 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics winners, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov from the University of Manchester, Russia; Graphene was first isolated in 2004 by extracting layers of the material by the process of exfoliation with adhesive tape. Later in 2005, at Columbia University, the same team discovered that graphene was actually massless. From this day on this super-material acquired great importance in science. This next diagram explains this.
Graphite exfoliation process

If we dissect this marvelous material we get the best properties ever required for basically anything. Here are the properties:
Lightweight: 1 atom layer, 0.77 miligrams per square meters. 1 sqm. of paper is roughly 1000 times heavier than graphene.
• Hexagonal lattice.
• Super high electrical conductivity, better than coper. Although it can’t be switch off, physicists  are working on it.
• Mechanical strength, strongest material ever discovered.
Elastic, stretchable and pliable (physicists are developing condoms out of it.)
• Optical properties: white light absorption.
• Completely impermeable.
• Flexible.
• Largest surface area.
• Stiffest known material (stiffer than diamond).

Graphene is already destined to be the future of materials innovation. It is already thought to be used as a replacement of steel used for aircraft structures. Used for water filtration systems  because of it’s impervious surface, and why not for construction? How far are we from developing a new composite that will replace steel, based on graphite? Lighter structure, lighter foundations, the revolution of design?

Aerographene sample

Aerographe sample resting on a flower.

Explorations on graphene are endless. Aerographene is a composite of graphene and aerogel and is by far the lightest material ever created. It is said to be lighter than air and followed by comments like: “it doesn’t float”. If it doesn’t float it is more likely to be the next construction material “par excellence” and with no doubt is going to make architecture reach incredible ideas on top of many Architect’s and Designer’s heads.

We just can’t wait for scientists to uncover more ideas, the future is very near and we will be part of it in the making. Budget wise some might question it but the significance towards materials consumption and the effect of construction to the environment, could easily change with this new technology. We still don’t know how much pollution it might develop when mass produced, but reality is, this is going to be done.

Cheers to physics and science of materials!

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Mabelle Plasencia

Founder and Editor at INmatteria©
• Architect | LEED AP BD+C, with an intense passion for materiality, innovation, technology and science. • Arquitecta | LEED AP BD+C apasionada por la materialidad, innovación, tecnología y ciencia.