A nanotruss structure fabricated by Caltech researcher Julia Greer.
Caltech A nanotruss structure fabricated by Caltech researcher Julia Greer.

The building blocks of the future are being developed in research labs today. From graphene production en masse to metamaterials that rethink the form and function of conventional construction mediums, here are five innovations with the potential to change architecture today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Unbreakable Materials

Julia Greer, a materials science and mechanics professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), uses two-photon lithography to create precise polymer nanotrusses that can be coated in materials like metal or ceramic, hollowed out to remove the polymer, and then stacked in a fractal construction—essentially a nanotruss made of nanotrusses. The newly created material couples the structural and material properties of its medium, such as metal or ceramic, to possess previously unheard of characteristics including flaw-tolerance and shape memory. The lab is trying to scale the process from its current millimeter size to that of a sheet of letter-sized paper. But don’t expect to see the metamaterial used in structural members or cladding, Greer says. Rather, likely uses in the built space include battery cells, smart windows, heat exchangers, and wind turbines. “You can make paper that is un-wettable, thermally insulating, and untearable,” she says. “You can let your imagination go wild.”

Resilient, Self-Cleaning Finishes

For application to glass, steel, paper, and other materials, a new coating from researchers at the University College London resists moisture even after being scratched or exposed to oil—typical weak spots for conventional repellent coatings. Made from coated titanium dioxide nanoparticles, the finish rejects water, oil, and even red wine by bouncing the invasive substances off its surface and removing dirt in the process. Although the coating is currently applied in 20-centimeter-square areas, “we see no reason why this couldn’t be scaled up,” says Ivan Parkin, head of the university’s chemistry department and corresponding author of a paper on the research in the journal Science. Parkin’s team has talked about automobile paint and moisture-resistant coatings as possible applications for the technology. It could eventually be used to create a durable, self-cleaning façade that can better withstand the elements than current options on the market.

Wave Benders

Researchers at the University of Missouri have developed a new way to control elastic waves—which can travel through materials without altering their composition—that could protect structures from seismic events. The team developed and engraved a geometric microstructure pattern (shown below) into a steel plate to bend or refract elastic and acoustic waves away from a target. “By redirecting the shock waves carrying massive energy around the important infrastructures or residential buildings through a metamaterial cloak, civilian lives and common properties can be saved from catastrophic earthquakes or tsunamis,” says Guoliang Huang, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. The team chose steel for its ubiquity but Huang says other metals and plastics can be engineered to have similar functionality.

Guoliang Huang

More (and Better) Graphene

Caltech researchers say they’ve found a faster way to mass-produce graphene—the ultrathin and superstrong nanomaterial discovered at the University of Manchester in the U.K. in 2004—and at a higher quality than was previously possible. Their batch-processing method allows for the growth of smoother and stronger graphene sheets than do conventional thermal processes, while cutting production time from hours to minutes and increasing sample sizes from millimeters to—soon—inches. The process doesn’t require the development of new processing equipment or infrastructure, says David Boyd, a Caltech staff scientist and first author of the related paper published in the journal Nature Communications. “It’s process-compatible,” he says. Still, the most likely applications for graphene in architecture are in small-scale products such as coatings, solar cells, and electronics.

Early-stage graphene growth on copper, magnified from left to right.
Nature Communications Early-stage graphene growth on copper, magnified from left to right.

Stronger Concrete

At Purdue University, researchers are adding cellulose nanocrystals derived from wood fiber to concrete. Nano-reinforced materials typically outperform conventional alternatives across a range of mechanical and chemical properties—among them strength, impact resistance, and flexibility. When applied to construction materials like concrete, they help to reduce a structure’s environmental footprint by requiring less material to achieve a similar effect. The nanocrystal additive can be extracted as a byproduct of industrial agriculture, bioenergy, and paper production. Its addition enhances the concrete-curing process, the researchers say, allowing the concrete to use water more efficiently and without impacting its weight or density significantly. Construction materials are among the target applications for the additive, Purdue associate professor Jeffrey Youngblood says, but the team is still working to scale it up from current dimensions of 1 foot tall by 6 inches in diameter, assessing data to standardize and optimize the material’s behavior. “We hope to be at a large test scale in a few years,” he says.

Cellulose nanocrystals shown using a transmission electron microscope.
Purdue Life Sciences Microscopy Center Cellulose nanocrystals shown using a transmission electron microscope.