Smart building materials are a multi-billion-dollar opportunity for manufacturers

Aug. 7, 2019
Scientists are inventing new types of concrete, wood and reflective materials.

Factories of the future will be built using smart materials that will be more efficient, stronger and greener. And scientists are already inventing new types of concrete, wood, and reflective materials that will enable businesses to both improve their facilities and profit by supplying components to the construction industry

Richard van Hooijdonk

The market for innovative and green building materials is set to reach $364.6 billion by 2022. And that’s just a glimpse of future potential, as the global construction industry is ripe for disruption, too. Manufacturers that stay abreast of the innovations in this field are likely to gain new production efficiencies and establish a foothold in a major new market.

The reuse of CO2 is set to become a huge market

Concrete, the most widely used construction material today, is a major hurdle on the path to greener building materials, as it contains cement, the production of which is responsible for a great deal of greenhouse-gas emissions. Thankfully, a new trend is promising to reduce this carbon footprint—carbon-infused concrete. Technology developed by the Canadian startup CarbonCure, for instance, is based on injecting captured CO2 into concrete. Once the material hardens, the carbon stays put and turns into a mineral that keeps the structure extremely stable and increases its compression strength. This way, the concrete is not only stronger, but also far more environmentally-friendly due to the reduced amount of cement that’s needed.

Around 90 concrete plants in the US and Canada already use this technology. Admittedly, this is a small number, as there are around 5,500 plants in the US alone, but the reuse of CO2 in various industries is forecasted to become a massive industry by 2030. And although the cost of carbon concrete at around $22 per kilogram is higher than that of reinforced concrete at $1.1 per kilogram, material savings of around 75% and improved longevity and corrosion resistance of the new material can offset the costs.

New ways to cut costs in buildings

Smart window-shading can also help companies and building owners cut costs. For instance, the InVert shading system, developed by TBM design, consists of suspended thermo-bimetals which react to sunlight by turning at different angles and even flipping upside-down to either block out the sunlight or let more in. The responsive window system naturally heats or cools the building’s interior without using electricity, motors or computer chips. Its motion is prompted solely by solar radiation. Architect Doris Sung, who invented the system, says that her invention can reduce the energy use of air conditioning systems by between 28-42%.

And Swedish scientists are even changing the very nature of wood by making it transparent. Led by researcher Lars Berglun, a team at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm create a see-through material that’s also capable of bearing heavy loads. And unlike typical glass, the transparent wood can absorb and store heat during the day and release it at night, acting as a natural air conditioning system. Also, compared to concrete, plastics or glass, it’s easier to dispose of after it has served its purpose, as it’s biodegradable. Researchers say that they’re now working to scale up  production and the material should be available for interior design projects in around five years.

Profiting from the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Compared to their traditional counterparts, smart building materials enable manufacturers to save money and make production facilities more efficient. Also, this growing multi-billion-dollar industry is in need of a variety of metals, chemicals and machines that many manufacturers are eager to supply. Although adjusting to the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution might not be the easiest thing to do, it’s surely a forward-looking investment that will pay off in the years to come.

Richard van Hooijdonk is a Dutch futurist.

Want more? Find our feature on smart roads here.