Juliet Woodcock looks at the latest innovations in the built environment from around the world.

Tom Robinson, founder of Adaptavate, has been named the Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year, winning £30,000 in start-up funding for his invention Breathaboard, a plant-based alternative to plasterboard that locks CO2 into buildings.

A builder originally, Tom’s intention is to create a moisture absorbing board that will facilitate what he describes as “healthier people in healthier homes.” His invention is 75% bio-based and the remainder a mineral-binder – non-cementitious – so at the end of its life, Breathaboard is 100% compostable.

Tom explained to R&R: “We are trying to create a board that is a fundamental shift in the way we make materials that will grow into the materials of the future; but what is really important to me is that we’re trying to address the issue of moisture in buildings – that will be the main selling point.”

Financial backing for R&D is in place; as is funding with Bath University to quantify the performance of the product, while Tom is in the process of gaining accreditations such as the BRE Green Guide Rating, but as he reveals, this is a lengthy process – still being at the design stage for the factory to produce the board. The only results back at this early stage of testing is for thermal conductivity, which is half that of traditional plasterboard at 0.089 W/mK.

Meanwhile in Italy, an Italian construction firm has developed a ‘biodynamic’ mortar that is able to remove pollutants from the air automatically. The mortar, which is made from recycled scraps of marble and left over aggregate, absorbs nitrogen oxide and sulphur pollution and converts it into harmless salts. It uses a titanium catalyst that is activated by ultraviolet light to drive the chemical reaction. The salts then wash off the walls when it rains. It has already been used to create a building in Milan called the Palazzo Italia, which was completed for the World Fair in the city in 2015.

Looking further north, researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have developed a transparent wood material that could change the way we construct buildings and solar panels, as well as make glass windows a thing of the past.

The new material is suitable for mass production, the researchers say, and is a low-cost renewable resource. To create the transparent wood, researchers chemically removed lignin from samples of commercial balsa wood. Lignin being a structural polymer in plants and can be found in the cell walls, blocking 80 to 95 percent of light from passing through.

This alone, however, didn’t result in creating a transparent material.

Removing lignin makes the wood white, so researchers added added acrylic to the wood to allow light to pass through.

Cement is still one of the most widely used materials in construction, but also one of the largest contributors to harmful carbon emissions, said to be responsible for around 7 per cent of annual global emissions. Researchers at Bath University, meanwhile, are trying to overcome the problem of cracking in concrete, by developing a self-healing mix; containing bacteria within microcapsules, which will germinate when water enters a crack in the matrix. This will produce limestone, plugging the crack before water and oxygen has a chance to corrode the steel reinforcement.

Kinetic energy is another area of science under the microscope; with Pavegen creating a “transponder” type technology that enables flooring to harness the energy of footsteps. It can be used indoors or outdoors in high traffic areas, and generates electricity from pedestrian footfall using an electromagnetic induction process and flywheel energy storage. The technology is best suited to transport hubs where a large flow of people will pass over it.

Who knows what our bright young things will invent next? However if we can’t halt the slide in education standards – especially for mathematics and science – and bring on a new generation of inventors as well as savvy building professionals, we may find that we not simply dealing with a skills shortage, but a chasm our industry cannot climb out of.

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