Buildings made of bone

In a bid to reduce building emissions, researchers at the University of Cambridge are developing a sustainable building material made of artificial bone and eggshell. The composite material takes very little energy to produce.

With building emissions set to rise in the coming decades to support an ever-expanding urban population, researchers at the University of Cambridge are looking to create new building materials that are strong, sustainable and inspired by nature.

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

Oyen, who works in the field of biomimetics, is constructing small samples of artificial bone and eggshell, which could be used as medical implants, or even be easily scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials.

Like their real-life counterparts, artificial bone and eggshell are composites of proteins and minerals. The protein gives the material its toughness and resistance to fracture, while the mineral makes it stiff and hard. In her lab, Oyen and her team “template” the mineral components directly onto collagen, the most abundant protein in the animal world.

But Oyen cautions that it will take some time before we’re living in bone and eggshell houses. Although the process takes place at room temperature and the samples take very little energy to produce, the researchers are now investigating if non-animal-derived or synthetic proteins or polymers could be used instead.

“Another issue is the construction industry is a very conservative one,” explains Oyen. “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.”


Image credit: Bernd Thaller, flickr/Creative Commons

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