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Could future cities be constructed from bone?

London skyline

Engineering researchers at Cambridge University are in the process of developing materials that mimic the structures of bone and eggshell for use in construction.

According to the researchers, concrete and steel production make up about 10% of global carbon emissions.

Although many researchers are looking at ways of producing steel and concrete in more energy-efficient ways, or finding ways of using less, Cambridge’s Department of Engineering bioengineer Michelle Oyen is looking to create new building materials.

“Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems – they fundamentally do things differently,” she said.

With funding support from the US Army Corps of Engineers she is constructing small samples of artificial bone and eggshell, which could be potentially be scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials. She is looking at the proportion of protein and minerals and how this impacts strength, and she is also trying to engineer material that self-heals in a way similar to bones.

“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,” said 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.”

Another area she is investigating is whether a non-animal-derived or even synthetic protein or polymer could be used instead of natural collagen.

She said there is also an issue for the construction industry to overcome.

“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.”

“Just because we can make all of our buildings out of concrete and steel doesn’t mean we should. But it will require big change,” she concluded.

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