By Jason Hurdis, Global Market Professional, Construction Materials Industry, Caterpillar Inc.
I’ve always been intrigued with unusual construction materials. I read about a house in Massachusetts made entirely of newspapers. A temple in Thailand, built with more than a million beer bottles. And that ice hotel in Sweden—even the beds are just big blocks of frozen water. Fun to think about.
While most of the contractors I work with still use fairly traditional materials, there’s some pretty interesting stuff under development today. Like bioplastics made from discarded shrimp shells, strong as aluminum and only half the weight—biocompatible, biodegradable and inexpensive to make. Or synthetic spider silk. Light as a web, yet stronger than steel on a gram-for-gram basis.
Here are a few more materials I’ve heard about lately.
- No-fines concrete, made of crushed granite. It’s a permeable mixture that can absorb 880 gallons of water per minute, a possible solution in areas prone to flooding.
- Roman concrete, inspired by the builders of the Roman Empire, featuring mortar made from volcanic ash and lime.
- Green-mix concrete, combining conventional ingredients with waste and recycled materials like fly ash and aluminum can fibers.
- Self-healing concrete, some made with shape-memory polymers activated by electrical currents; some embedded with dormant bacteria that activates when cracks form and water is present, setting off a chemical process that plugs the cracks.
- Thin-film solar cells, dotted with randomly distributed pinholes, similar to those found on some butterfly wings. They allow the harvest of two to four times as much sunlight as previous-generation products.
- Kinetic flooring and road materials that convert the energy from footsteps or moving vehicles into electric power.
It’s hard to predict if or when these materials will be commercially available, but one thing is certain: there’s growing demand for stronger, lighter, more durable construction materials that deliver less environmental impact. So maybe you want to hang on to those old shrimp shells. Or maybe not.