July 15, 2024

Architectural Concepts Guide

Elevating Home Design Standards

‘Almost unheard of in engineered devices’

2 min read

A house come to life sounds like something out of a horror movie, but one researcher may be able to turn that nightmare into a dream. 

Montana State University assistant professor Chelsea Heveran believes that using engineered living materials (ELMs) in buildings could be the key to reducing harmful pollution associated with the construction industry.

“We want to use the functionalities of living cells to help make building materials more sustainable,” Heveran said in a statement published by MSU News Service. 

While the cells have not yet been able to survive for long periods in structures meant to support more weight, Heveran reportedly took inspiration from the way bones function. 

“Bones, which both maintain living cells for decades and support structural loads, often provide mechanical function for an entire lifetime without undergoing mechanical failure. Such a long service life is almost unheard of in engineered devices such as vehicles and machines,” Heveran said. 

Her paper, which was published by the peer-reviewed journal Matter, pointed out that 25% of carbon pollution worldwide comes from the manufacturing of traditional building materials, including concrete and cement, so finding alternatives would make things more sustainable. 

She’s not alone in her quest. Seaweed and hempcrete are carbon-soaking, weatherizing, ancient building materials that have received fresh attention in recent years, while mycelium is considered an emerging biodegradable possibility. 

In MSU’s press release, Heveran highlighted how there has already been some success using microbes, or tiny organisms, in place of the typical components, pointing to a Colorado company that manufactures cinder blocks with a mineral created from photosynthetic algae. 

The research is a long way from translating to market in any meaningful way, with regulatory policies and ethical concerns among the considerations that would need to be hammered out, but interest in the possibilities appears to be growing. 

In July, MSU held its inaugural ELM conference, which brought together 140 people from universities and private companies. 

“I think it’s likely in the future that a lot of the materials around us that are now inert will have a living component that performs some function,” Heveran said in a statement published by MSU over the summer. “This is an emerging scientific community. We want to spark collaboration and accelerate the progress that’s happening.”

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