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New Nanoforum report describing Nanotechnology and Construction

Nanotechnology is the use of very small particles of material either by themselves or by their manipulation to create new large scale materials. The size of the particles, though, is very important because at the length scale of the nanometre, 10-9m, the properties of the material actually become affected. The precise size at which these changes are manifested varies between materials, but is usually in the order of 100 nm or less.

Nanotechnology is not a new science and it is not a new technology. It is rather an extension of the sciences and technologies that have already been in development for many years and it is the logical progression of the work that has been done to examine the nature of our world at an ever smaller scale.

A nanometre is a billionth of a metre and at that size the classical mechanics of the everyday cross over into the quantum mechanics of the nano-world. The two are, of course, linked and recent developments in the study and manipulation of materials and processes at the nanoscale offer the tantalizing prospect of producing new macro materials, properties and products. The construction business will inevitably be a beneficiary of this nanotechnology; in fact it already is in the fields of concrete, steel and glass. Concrete is stronger, more durable and more easily placed, steel tougher and glass self-cleaning. Increased strength and durability are also a part of the drive to reduce the environmental footprint of the built environment by the efficient use of resources. This is achieved both prior to the construction process by a reduction in pollution during the production of materials (e.g. cement) and also in service, through efficient use of energy due to advancements in insulation. These and many other effects of nanotechnology on the industry are discussed in the report together with comments from researchers and industry professionals.

Two nano-sized particles that stand out in their application to construction materials are titanium dioxide (TiO2) and carbon nanotubes (CNT’s). The former is being used for its ability to break down dirt or pollution and then allow it to be washed off by rain water on everything from concrete to glass and the latter is being used to strengthen and monitor concrete. CNT’s though, have many more properties, apart from exceptional strength, that are being researched in computing, aerospace and other areas and the construction industry will benefit directly or indirectly from those advancements as well.

Cost and the relatively small number of practical applications, for now, hold back much of the prospects for nanotechnology. However, construction also tends to be a fragmented, low research oriented and conservative endeavour and this plays against its adoption of new technologies, especially ones that appear so far removed from its core business. Materials though, as mentioned above, are construction’s core business and the prospects for more changes are significant in the not too distant future, in fact, the researchers surveyed predicted that many advances would arrive within five years. The sheer size and scope of the construction industry means that the accompanying economic impact will be huge.

In order to capitalize on the effects of nanotechnology on the business, however, much more funding for construction related research, increased interdisciplinary working between researchers and communication between those researchers and industry is needed. If nothing else, changes outside the immediate scope of construction (e.g. demographic or environmental) will drive the need for innovation in the industry and if construction continues to ignore nanotechnology it will be the one left paying a fortune for a last minute ticket it could have had for a song if it had acted earlier.

Mark Morrison | alfa
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