Imagine the city of New York, Proud, Powerful, and sporting a record setting bone. This could be the future if researchers from Cambridge are right. The team, led by Michelle Oyen are looking into the posibility of growing new building materials out of a substance that is closer to bone and eggshell than concrete or steel.
The inspiration for the project is the fact that traditional material, like the aforementioned steel and concrete, take up a lot of resources to make. The processes used in their manufacture account for nearly 10% of all greenhouse gasses. The solution, according to Oyen, who happens to be a bioengineer, could be found in the field of biometrics. Basically that just means using science to copy life. She’s not the only one who has faith in this new idea. Her study is receiving a lot of its funding from the US Army Corps of Engineers. So far, she’s already been able to create artificial eggshell and medical grade bone in the lab.
On the project, Oyen said, “What we’re trying to do is to rethink the way that we make things. Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems – they fundamentally do things differently…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.”
One of the big things that makes the process of growing bone more efficient than making steel and concrete is that it happens at room temperature, so it is a far less energy dependent endeavor. Researchers are even working on incorporating the natural healing properties of bone.
The jump from eggshells and bones for medical use to skyscrapers is still a ways off. The main thing holding them back is that they are still using animal collagen to support the process. Things won’t really pick up until they are able to figure out a good polymer or synthetic protein that could be substituted if they ever wanted the process to be scale-able.