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Bone Buildings of the Future

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

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Buildings of the future could one day be constructed using artificial bone and eggshell.

That’s if a group of U.K. researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering have a say in the matter.

© iStock.com / NI QIN

The artificial bone and eggshell samples could be used as medical implants or even scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials, according to the research team.

Dr. Michelle Oyen is leading the innovative research, funded by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

She’s creating small samples of artificial bone and eggshell, which could be used as medical implants or even scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials, according to a recent university report highlighting Oyen’s work.  

Biomimicry Benefits

Her focus is on “biomimetics,” literally “copying life.”  

“What we’re trying to do is to rethink the way that we make things,” says Oyen. “Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems—they fundamentally do things differently.”

Just like the real things, artificial bone and eggshell are composites of proteins and minerals. In bone, for example, the ratio of proteins versus mineral is roughly equal. The mineral gives bone stiffness and hardness and the protein delivers toughness and resistance to fracture. While bone can break, it is rare and the material has the ability to self-heal, which is another characteristic the researchers are studying.

In eggshell, the proportions are different: about 95 percent mineral to 5 percent protein, but even this small amount of protein makes eggshell remarkably tough considering how thin it is, the university reports.

In the Lab

To make artificial versions of these materials, Oyen and her team template the mineral onto collagen, the most abundant protein in the animal world.

© iStock.com / oxime

"Just because we can make all of our buildings out of concrete and steel doesn't mean we should," said Oyen. "But it will require big change."

“One of the interesting things is that the minerals that make up bone deposit along the collagen, and eggshell deposits outwards from the collagen, perpendicular to it,” says Oyen. “So it might even be the case that these two composites could be combined to make a lattice-type structure, which would be even stronger—there’s some interesting science there that we’d like to look into.”

The process of making artificial bone and eggshell is performed at room temperature, taking very little energy to produce. Further, the method could be scaled up relatively easily, Oyen says.

Study Ongoing

More study is needed before our structures are built with eggshell and bone, she notes.

The collagen that the team needs to make the materials is derived from animal sources. The researchers are investigating whether a non-animal-derived material or a synthetic protein or polymer could be used instead.

“Another issue is the construction industry is a very conservative one,” Oyen says. “All of our existing building standards have been designed with concrete and steel in mind. Constructing buildings out of entirely new materials would mean completely rethinking the whole industry.

“But if you want to do something really transformative to bring down carbon emissions, then I think that’s what we have to do. If we’re going to make a real change, a major rethink is what has to happen.”

Concrete and steel are responsible for as much as one tenth of worldwide carbon emissions, the Cambridge researchers note.


Tagged categories: Biomimicry; Building design; Building materials; Carbon footprint; Construction; Research; Research and development; Substrates

Comment from peter gibson, (6/28/2016, 10:08 AM)

Cant believe this nonsense. these damn Greens have a stupid angle on everything. D & D please don't bring us these stupid articles. They insult our intelligence.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (6/29/2016, 9:28 AM)

Peter, articles on novel approaches to building materials are entirely appropriate. I'm not sure why you're ranting.

Comment from Rodney White, (6/30/2016, 8:34 AM)

If we were to discount every new idea, we'd still be building with nothing but stone and mortar-none of that new-fangled steel or aluminum stuff.....

Comment from jon gilbert, (6/30/2016, 9:39 AM)

Peter, It seems the article is more insulting to your politics than your intelligence. Are you afraid of change as Rodney implies? That is not a sign of intelligence but rather ignorance. Or more likely just angry about the growing acceptance that we all need to be aware of how we impact the health and safety of our environment? Would you have been there in 1906(?) cursing the ingalls building and its new fangled concrete and steel construction. I doubt it. But you're probably still mad big government took away your "freedom" to use those lead based paints and high solvent oils. After all they worked so well and why should you care about a bunch of poor kids being poisoned in their own homes. Hopefully these arcane positions will eventually disappear through attrition.

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