Vitruvius, around the 1st century B.C., wrote in his book De architectura libri decem about adobe, lime mortars, stretcher bond ashlar masonry, drainage machines…a compendium of construction techniques and materials that would revolutionize civil engineering processes at the time. But, how would he approach his treatise now if he was an architect of our time instead of a classic Roman citizen? Most certainly, writing about technology.
This article will be discussing how the construction industry has forged a unique partnership with technological developments and we’ll be showing you some examples of the newest materials and techniques that will revolutionize this field, some of them already being implemented in many construction works.
New variants of concrete: a classic staple embracing technology
Concrete, better known by those outside the sector as cement, traces back to Roman engineering, though some recent researches claim that ancient Egyptians already used reconstructed limestone to build the colossal pyramids of Giza. This construction material has been evolving with time and combining with other elements like steel to improve many of its properties. However, its lack of flexibility and, therefore, its tendency to crack, was traditionally its “Achilles heel”.
A team of scientists at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have developed a similar, though not identical, material to traditional concrete which exceeds its previous capacities. The concept features a mixture of hard materials and polymer microfibres instead of cement, becoming a material up to 40 times lighter and 50 times stronger than standard concrete. In addition, its most innovative feature is its ability to bend under pressure conditions.
All these characteristics, should its manufacturing be viable, turn it into an unmatchable candidate to build skyscrapers, mainly in earthquake-prone locations. Besides, its implementation is faster and more efficient, therefore being more sustainable.
But breakthroughs regarding concrete manufacturing don’t end there. Technology is continuously seeking to add properties to this material and turn it, despite its classic origin, into the elite element of the forthcoming construction work generations.
One of the biggest headaches for civil engineering is tackling the effects of ice on roads when temperature drops, in order to avoid accidents. Researchers at the University of Nebraska have developed an electrified concrete capable of melting snow and ice accumulation. This concrete is composed of 20% carbon particles and metallic fibres, and should get rid of ice even under the harshest winter conditions.
As of yet, it is being tested by the Federal Aviation Administration in several landing strips but, if successful, we could be seeing it being implemented into conventional roads very soon.
“Technology reaches concrete to turn it into the elite of construction materials”
These are not the only concrete-related projects science is currently working on. If we take a look into the research being performed at the Cardiff University in Wales, we find that they’re seeking to develop a self-healing system to be embedded into concrete. This way, concrete should detect when an alteration in the structure occurs, and repair itself autonomously without the need for human intervention by means of any of these three techniques: through organic and inorganic healing agents, shape-shifting polymers capable of adapting to alterations, or tiny capsules containing bacteria and nutrients that would help refill cracks by producing calcium carbonate. All three sound like science-fiction, right?
The asphalt of the future partners with the sun
Renewable energies will be increasingly prominent in the construction industry. Not long ago, we learned about some revolutionary traditional tile-like solar panels ready to roof some of the most emblematic buildings.
In addition, engineering has already paved the path for many solar road projects in diverse countries. France has pioneered this initiative by implementing a kilometre of solar road open to traffic, capable of supplying electricity to a small village’s public lighting in Normandy.
For its part, the American Department of Transportation has given the green light to provide several subsidies to test the viability of this kind of futuristic and sustainable roads along its main routes.
Drones, by the air and climbing the walls
Many of the most recent breakthroughs focus on drone technology. They are being used in the field of engineering to oversee and optimize projects, although they sometimes have to deal with difficulties when inspecting buildings or bridges in short distances.
A Japanese company has developed a drone with a very unique configuration, not only being capable of flying, but also to hold onto the structure under examination in order to detect cracks of up to 0.1 mm in width. The half-bird, half-climber PD6-CI-L drone could entail great improvement in the detection of structure issues and supervision of engineering works.