10 Trends To Watch - part 2 of 4

Continuing Our 4-part Series on Developing Systems and Methods That Are Shaping the Future of Construction.
(Part 1 appeared on March 20, 2012) 

3. Transparent Aluminum

Aluminum was discovered in 1826, but pure metal was hard to separate from its ore. In 1855, aluminum bars were displayed at the Paris Exposition alongside France's crown jewels, which was appropriate since the metal cost about half the price of gold. 30 years later, an economical process for extracting aluminum was discovered, making it an inexpensive and commonly used metal.

100 years later, transparent aluminum was invented... in the mind of a writer for Star Trek. It was envisioned as a commonly available material in the 23rd century.

Now, 200 years ahead of schedule, several forms of transparent aluminum have already been developed. In one, an immensely powerful X-ray laser knocks electrons out of aluminum molecules, rendering it nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation. This process is completely impractical in its current form: each laser pulse consumes enough electricity to power a city and the invisibility lasts only about 40 millionths of one billionth of a second.

Transparent aluminum oxynitride, however, is already in use as a replacement for bullet-resistant armored glass laminates. The ceramic material is half the weight and twice the strength of armored glass. It is also twice the cost of armored glass. But that deal-breaker will probably not last long. Aluminum's history suggests that today's "completely impractical" can be tomorrow's "nothing to it."

Recommendation: We used to ask, "How can we solve new problems with existing materials?" The new paradigm is, "How can we solved existing problems with new materials?"  

4. Big Wood
Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) has made the jump across the Atlantic and is now available in Canada from Structurlam and other fabricators. Like plywood, CLT is fabricated into panels with multiple layers of wood, each set perpendicular to adjacent layers. But instead of using thin veneers, CLT uses lumber to create panels that can be five or more inches thick. And instead of commodity 4 x 8 ft. panels, panels are custom engineered and fabricated in sizes limited only by handling considerations; plywood on steroids. 

The panels can create load-bearing walls or decks that are 1/6 the weight and 1/3 the thickness of concrete with similar load-bearing capability. Its building code classification as inherently fire-resistant heavy timber construction, plus its structural properties, makes CLT a viable candidate for mid-rise buildings; indeed it has already been used for nine-story buildings in the UK

Since wood sequesters carbon dioxide and is a renewable resource, CLT has good environmental bona fides. It may become even greener as it enters the US. A team here proposes to assemble CLT with interlocking dovetails, eliminating the need for adhesives.  More, they propose to source wood from dead, standing trees in forests devastated by Pine Bark Beetles. This wood has low economic value, but a vast supply: millions of acres in the Intermountain West are victim of the infestation.

Recommendation: This may affect your business, even if you are not in the wood industry.

5. Think Blue
Climate change has a pernicious effect on the availability of water for human consumption, agriculture, and industry. Consider, for example, communities (and nations) that depend on a steady supply of water from melting mountain snow pack. With glaciers in retreat world wide, melt water can be exhausted before a hot, dry summer is over.  Here are three types of responses.

An alternative water source is atmospheric humidity, and new processes are reducing the energy required for condensing it into liquid water. The new AirDrop system uses photovoltaic cells to power fans that drive air through underground pipes where the air cools, condenses, and is captured. While initially proposed for agricultural irrigation, the same concept should work using the thermal mass of a structure to condense moisture. 

Another source is what is now call "waste water." Global Environmental Technology Services (GETS) has technology for wastewater treatment that is, compared to conventional treatment plants, odorless, takes 8 seconds instead of 20 days, does not use hazardous chemicals such as chloride, and fits on 1% of the land. Their small and fast system may allow water to be treated and reused on site, and to eliminate costs of connecting to a centralized sewage system. 

A third trend to watch is a growing range of products to implement a very old idea: rainwater collection. With our former water abundance challenged and price on the rise, rainwater collection is suddenly innovative.

Recommendation: New products and systems may have to be implemented on a small scale at first.

Watch for Parts 3 & 4 next week