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Bones Are The New Player in Green Building Construction Game

Turns out, the real sinister culprit in the pursuit of sustainability—the actual production of concrete and steel.

By James L. Knobloch January 4, 2017

When it comes to “going green” with construction, there might be a new player in the game, and the method might surprise you. The proposed cure for environmentally damaging, traditional steel and concrete construction is bones.

Now, before we upset any vegans, the bone is artificial, created at the University of Cambridge with funding from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Turns out that while much of the world has been concerned with green buildings, there’s a more sinister culprit in the pursuit of sustainability: the actual production of concrete and steel. The means by which the concrete and steel used to build the vast majority of urban dwellings create a massive carbon footprint – even more than air travel, for example.

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On the other hand, synthetic bone—created, like actual bone, from a mix of mineral and protein—requires very little energy to create and is also environmentally friendly. And if that isn’t sci-fi enough for you, chew on this: though not possible just yet, researchers hope to one day imbue artificially constructed bone with the ability to self-heal, just like the real thing, and potentially ushering in a new era of architecture, building and construction.

Rethinking the planet’s climate and carbon emission woes has experts looking at the problem from a different angle. Instead of focusing energy towards “greening” traditional construction methods, direct that energy to finding better construction means altogether. One of the people leading this charge is Dr. Michelle Oyen, a bioengineer with Cambridge’s Department of Engineering.

“What we’re trying to do is to rethink the way that we make things,” said Oyen. “Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems — they fundamentally do things differently.”

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The resulting artificial bone is strong, durable, rigid and hard from the mineral, tough and fracture-resistant from the protein. And yes, a potential game changer for environmentally friendly cities of the future. For those of you that understand science-speak, the material is created by templating’ hydroxyapatite, a mineral form of calcium apatite, directly onto a substrate of natural collagen.

So, eco-friendly bone buildings for everyone, right?

Not so fast, says Oyen.

“…the construction industry is a very conservative one,” she says. “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.”

Still, Oyen seems optimistic:

“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.”

James L. Knobloch

ABOUT THE AUTHOR James L. Knobloch

ABOUT THE AUTHOR James L. Knobloch

A creative professional with a sharp tongue and a big smile, taking on city living one slightly-veiled sarcastic comment at a time. Born and raised just outside of New Orleans, James is a living testament to his own mantra, “Southern hospitality is a privilege, not a right,” giving his work a unique, dry humor meets charm perspective.

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