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Over the horizon

Elspeth Finch

New materials are shaping the future.

Steel and concrete, bricks and mortar. They have been the building blocks of our infrastructure for centuries. But should there come a point when they are consigned to the history books?

If the 2,000-year-old Pantheon in Rome, which is famously made of concrete, is anything to go by they will be around for many years to come.

But what will be the innovation in materials that will shape our cities and infrastructure in the future?

Our cities are changing and our lifestyles are getting broader and faster. We need our infrastructure to be bigger (or in some cases smaller), better and smarter, but at the same time cheaper, quicker and less disruptive to install and operate.

A brief look outside our industry would open our eyes to a wide range of alternative materials and techniques that chemists, materials scientists and other engineers are busy developing.

So the answers to the challenges we face may already exist; we just need to adopt and apply them to deliver the infrastructure
we need.

To focus on a few, 3D printed, self-healing and composite materials are all exciting prospects. Composite materials are already being used to create lightweight structures that are more versatile, quicker and easier to install and offer huge cost savings over the course of their lives.

The idea of printing buildings with a 3D printer could accelerate repetitious home building to help resolve our housing crisis and provide quick emergency shelters in areas of disaster relief.

Even the evolution of our tried and tested friend, concrete, to become a living material which has the ability to repair itself could deliver increased resilience to our infrastructure.

Some materials are already being used, but there is much more room for improvement. If they are to be adopted successfully by our industry we will need to answer some tough questions.

Will they meet our sustainability requirements? What will they cost during their lifetime? Will legislation and standards change to have the foresight to allow their usage? How do we secure a supply chain against competition from other industries? How confident are we that these innovative materials will be around for the foreseeable future?

We have many exciting opportunities to innovate using new materials. But going back to my original question, they should be used because they offer the best solution, rather than because we think we should.

As much as I welcome new materials I also love seeing how cities are defined by the local materials that they are made of: the sandstone of Glasgow, the honeyed stone of the Cotswolds and London’s Stock Bricks.

So let’s not consign these traditional materials to the past.

Instead let’s create a new legacy where new and old are brought together to retain the character of our cities and make our buildings and infrastructure the best it can be.

  • Elspeth Finch is Atkins director of innovation

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