Farewell Concrete

Here are some great ideas for getting free of our reliance on concrete-an industrial process which creates a great deal of CO2 pollution. Fly ash from gassification is one of these ideas.

Would you live in a house made of sand and bacteria? It’s a surprisingly good idea

<strong>Had enough of concrete blocks?</strong> The hugely useful (but harmfully polluting) material responsible for the rise and rise of the modern city can no longer claim to be the only material available to architects.

Had enough of concrete blocks? The hugely useful (but harmfully polluting) material responsible for the rise and rise of the modern city can no longer claim to be the only material available to architects.

Edinburgh College of Art student Peter Trimble has created a possible solution using little more than sand and urea. <strong><a href='http://petertrimble.co.uk/microbial-manufacture' target='_blank'>Dupe</a></strong> is almost as structurally strong as concrete but produces no greenhouse gasses. Trimble's system is not yet ready for production, but similar concrete alternatives are already available to builders...

Edinburgh College of Art student Peter Trimble has created a possible solution using little more than sand and urea. Dupe is almost as structurally strong as concrete but produces no greenhouse gasses. Trimble’s system is not yet ready for production, but similar concrete alternatives are already available to builders…

Builders laying the concrete foundations of the Wilshire Grand Tower -- the skyscraper set to become Los Angeles' tallest building -- <a href='http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20140217005645/en/Headwaters-Fly-Ash-Record-Setting-Los-Angeles#.UyhZevl_uDl' target='_blank'>substituted a quarter of the cement </a>with
Fly Ash” The waste ash from coal combustion at power plants in Utah and Arizona increases the durability of concrete while offsetting the CO2 cost of cement production.

Builders laying the concrete foundations of the Wilshire Grand Tower — the skyscraper set to become Los Angeles’ tallest building — substituted a quarter of the cement with “Fly Ash” The waste ash from coal combustion at power plants in Utah and Arizona increases the durability of concrete while offsetting the CO2 cost of cement production.

Japanese firm TIS & Partners have created a new building material called “CO2 Structure,” dreamed-up in the aftermath of the March 2011 Japanese Tsunami as an emergency rebuilding material than can be put in place quicker than slow-drying concrete. By injecting carbon dioxide into a silica (sand and quartz), they managed to developed a carbon-negative building material with twice the tensile strength of brick.

Natural building materials are a popular choice for those looking to cut CO2 emissions. Making bricks from hemp results in a net decrease in carbon dioxide levels, as the growing plant takes in CO2. These bricks are made of hemp combined with clay, while <strong><a href='http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/hempcrete-hemp-house_n_1506662.html' target='_blank'>Hempcrete</a></strong> (a mixture of hemp and lime) is sold internationally as a thermal walling material.

Natural building materials are a popular choice for those looking to cut CO2 emissions. Making bricks from hemp results in a net decrease in carbon dioxide levels, as the growing plant takes in CO2. These bricks are made of hemp combined with clay, while Hempcrete (a mixture of hemp and lime) is sold internationally as a thermal walling material.

<strong><a href='http://www.ecovativedesign.com/' target='_blank'>Ecovative</a></strong><strong> </strong>already make packaging from agricultural waste and mushroom

Ecovative is already make packaging from agricultural waste and mushroom “mycelium” — and their next project is building materials. Founder Eben Bayer describes mycelium as “essentially the ‘roots’ of mushrooms” and says it is very good at binding together organic materials, which could one day make building blocks.

Another natural material with carbon negative production: lowly straw is making a return to construction. In America's
Straw bales are used as a both a structural and insulating material. Companies such as UK’s ModCell manufacture pre-fabricated wall and roof panels from straw.

Another natural material with carbon negative production: lowly straw is making a return to construction. In America’s “Nebraska Method” homes, straw bales are used as a both a structural and insulating material. Companies such as UK’s ModCell manufacture pre-fabricated wall and roof panels from straw.

Traditional building materials such as mud and <strong><a href='http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2513154/Farmer-builds-house-just-150-using-materials-skips--current-tenant-pays-rent-MILK.html' target='_blank'>cob</a></strong> -- a mixture of sand, clay, straw and earth -- have been proposed as a non-polluting alternative building material for small buildings, such as households. One <a href='http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/greenerliving/10478442/Michael-Bucks-cob-house-Does-the-answer-to-the-housing-crisis-lie-within-a-150-cottage.html' target='_blank'>man from Oxford</a>, UK claims to have built a Hobbit-like home from cob for less than $250.

Traditional building materials such as mud and cob — a mixture of sand, clay, straw and earth — have been proposed as a non-polluting alternative building material for small buildings, such as households. One man from Oxford, UK claims to have built a Hobbit-like home from cob for less than $250.

Recycled materials are making up an increasing part of building blocks. <strong><a href='http://www.aggregate.com/products-and-services/blocks/enviroblock/' target='_blank'>Enviroblocks</a></strong> are made from over 70% recycled aggregates, bound with cement, while <strong><a href='http://www.durisol.net/pdfs/Durisol%20Flyer.pdf' target='_blank'>Durisol</a></strong> units contain 80% recycled woodchip, which is wrapped around steel bars for strength.

Recycled materials are making up an increasing part of building blocks.Enviroblocks are made from over 70% recycled aggregates, bound with cement, while Durisol units contain 80% recycled woodchip, which is wrapped around steel bars for strength.

Clay blocks with

Clay blocks with “honeycomb” structured cross-sections — often known asZiegel Blocks — have been common in some parts of Europe for decades, but are now spreading far beyond. Manufacturing blocks from clay rather than concrete means less CO2 emissions from production, while the blocks insulating characteristics can cut a building’s energy costs.

Cutting concrete pollution could mean rethinking our approach to construction from start to finish. Housing made from recycled <strong><a href='http://www.gizmag.com/infiniski-shipping-container-architecture/22365/' target='_blank'>shipping containers</a></strong> has popped up all over the world and provides one low-cost, low-emission solution. Are there others?

Cutting concrete pollution could mean rethinking our approach to construction from start to finish. Housing made from recycled shipping containers has popped up all over the world and provides one low-cost, low-emission solution. Are there others?

— Peter Trimble found his formula through trial and error. A design student at the University of Edinburgh, he was aiming to produce an artistic exhibition for a module on sustainability, when he stumbled on “Dupe,” a living alternative to concrete.

A lab technician introduced Trimble to Sporosarcina pasteurii, a bacterium with binding qualities, sometimes used to solidify soil to hold road signs in place. The student tested it with one of the world’s most abundant resources – sand. Pumping bacterial solution into a sand-filled mould, he added nutrients, urea derived from urine as fertilizer and calcium. After a year, and hundreds of failed experiments, this process manufactured a stool around 70% the compression strength of concrete.

The process requires less than one-sixth of the energy used in concrete production, and is completely biodegradable. Crucially, Trimble believes his mechanism has the added benefit that it could be employed by anyone, anywhere.

“Once you have the basic framework it should be transferable. Imagine a Tsunami-hit farm in Indonesia that is not getting supplies. You could use sand and bacteria on site, practically free, and have shelter housing that is far more permanent.”

Trimble is working with NGOs to apply Dupe to Aboriginal settlements and insecure regions of Morocco. But while the applications are new and experimental, the concept of growing the material for our built environment is increasingly regarded as not merely interesting, but essential.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the construction industry accounts for 40% of the world’s C02 emissions, 40% of U.S. landfill and has been uniquely resistant to change. Concrete, bricks and cement have remained the dominant materials since the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, and as pressure mounts on resources and climate, scientists and architects are looking to the natural world for solutions.

Buildingbacteria

Bacteria have been at the center of alternative methods. North Carolina start-upBiomason is growing bricks on an industrial scale, cultivated from sand by microorganisms. The company has won major prizes and funding for the bricks, which will be used in a structure for the first time this year in a pedestrian walkway, ahead of building projects across the world.

Similar processes are being developed to build in the most challenging environments. British architects see an opportunity to cultivate new life in deserts, while NASA believe bacteria could allow the construction of bases on other planets without the headache of ferrying the material there.

While bacterial processes save heavily on carbon, there are concerns that by-products could be poisonous. But another living brick — made from mushrooms — has no such problems.

Functional fungus

New York firm Ecovative are producing materials that combine agricultural waste products such as corn stock with mushroom mycelium — the roots of the vegetable. Over five days the mycelium binds the waste to create a block with a stronger compressive strength than concrete, with none of the heat or energy required by regular bricks.

The product is in commercial use for packaging, producing thousands of units a month, and the company is expanding into construction. Ecovative believe that in addition to being renewable and decomposable, natural properties give them a performance advantage.

“It has great insulation properties”, says Sam Harrington, Ecovative Director of Sustainability. “A key benefit is flame resistance — without adding any chemicals we were able to achieve a Class A fire rating”.

There is scope for development. Mycelium effectively dies once its growth is complete, but Harrington is looking ahead to material that does not. “We are exploring ideas of living materials, perhaps that are self-healing or respond to leaks with indicators.”

Ecovative are in dialogue with major construction companies, and the material will soon be tested on a historic scale. A collaboration with architects The Living won the prestigious MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) PS-1 competition, and their creation will be installed in the museum courtyard this summer.

Growing for gold

“Hy-Fi” will be the largest ever grown structure, and first large building to claim zero carbon emissions. It will be formed of three 40-foot spiral towers constructed from the mushroom material, with varying properties of brick to maximise light and ventilation.

The material’s versatility offers unique design opportunities, says David Benjamin, lead architect of the project.

“You can dial in almost any performance you want. You can mix and match a variety of properties such as water resistance or UV resistance, lightness or durability. You can grow the bricks in almost any shape”

Benjamin says the bio-bricks could be made to last as long as traditional materials, but believes architecture must embrace temporary structures.

“It’s essential to recognize that not all materials should last for centuries. A lot of the steel in our buildings will last longer than we need. Our idea is a building that be made locally and quickly, and then have a plan for when the life of the building is over.”

Future applications would include pop-up stores, festival “tents” and emergency shelters, says Benjamin, but there are greater hopes for the material within the industry.

Stronger than concrete

“I could imagine every structure you would built out of bricks”, says Dirk Hebel, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Construction at the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore. “No high-rises, but smaller scale structures and houses. The material is stronger than concrete, with better insulation capacities”.

The challenge will come in commercializing the products, Hebel feels. “There is huge demand for alternative materials. The question is how easy it is to penetrate the existing market. This needs time and a couple of buildings to show the possibilities”.

Stealing from nature

Another, more radical approach takes the material from nature but also allows it to build the structure. Michael Pawlyn, director of Exploration Architecture, is a leading figure in biomimicry, having previously applied natural processes to create man-made forests in England and the Sahara Desert. His latest project to grow a “small venue for spoken word performances” from undersea biorock was recently unveiled at the Architecture Foundation in London.

“In biology, complex structures achieve resource efficiency by putting things in exactly the right place, which is very difficult with made materials”, says Pawlyn. “Our ways should deliver significant resource savings.”

Drawing on the natural accumulation of coral reefs, his team would install a steel frame in the deep ocean and leave it to attract material. Growth would be focused on specific areas of need using an electrical current.

“We’re interested in looking at its structural growth patterns. We have stress gauges on the structure to measure force in particular areas. If one is highly stressed, we can input more current so the rate of deposition matches the force.”

Pawlyn believes the structure could be built within two years, for consideration at scale. As with Ecovative, a key challenge ahead is to integrate still-living material to allow intelligent biosensors that respond to the building occupants.

Innovators in this space acknowledge the ongoing barriers presented in an industry that has resisted modernization. But from rock to fungus, sand to space dust, the use of materials and processes designed by nature herself offer both a solution to the sustainability crisis, and a glimpse of our new built environment: clean, efficient, and alive.

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Raffaello D’Andrea. Quadcoptors.

Flying robots learn mind-boggling tricks

Professor Raffaello D'Andrea has devoted his academic life to building better, more intelligent machines. He spent ten years at Cornell University before joining the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) in 2007. He was instrumental in the setting up of the university's Flying Machine Arena -- a testbed for autonomous vehicles which are capable of learning incredible tricks.

Professor Raffaello D’Andrea has devoted his academic life to building better, more intelligent machines. He spent ten years at Cornell University before joining the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) in 2007. He was instrumental in the setting up of the university’s Flying Machine Arena — a testbed for autonomous vehicles which are capable of learning incredible tricks.  VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75VtzpYxaN4#t=19

D'Andrea and his team have taught quadrocopters to work together to catch balls and balance and throw poles to one another.

D’Andrea and his team have taught quadrocopters to work together to catch balls and balance and throw poles to one another.

D'Andrea advises a small group of grad students at ETH Zurich. Together they are creating ever more complex tasks for their fleet of quadrocopters. Here the group can be seen onstage during a presentation at a <a href='http://zurichminds.com/' target='_blank'>Zurich Minds</a> event last year.

D’Andrea advises a small group of grad students at ETH Zurich. Together they are creating ever more complex tasks for their fleet of quadrocopters. Here the group can be seen onstage during a presentation at a Zurich Minds event last year.

At the Flying Machine Arena, two quadrocopters prepare to perform ...

At the Flying Machine Arena, two quadrocopters prepare to perform …

 ... balancing and tossing a pole between them without dropping it.

… balancing and tossing a pole between them without dropping it.

This feat was engineered by ETH Zurich grad student Dario Brescianini. <a href='http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pp89tTDxXuI' target='_blank'>Watch this</a> amazing video of the trick.

This feat was engineered by ETH Zurich grad student Dario Brescianini. Watch this amazing video of the trick.

Quadrocopters are popular now because of the shrinking size and cost of technology, says D'Andrea.

Quadrocopters are popular now because of the shrinking size and cost of technology, says D’Andrea.

Quadrocopters learn how to perform tasks using algorithms created by ETH Zurich. Here, three machines can been seen working together to cradle a ball in a net ...

Quadrocopters learn how to perform tasks using algorithms created by ETH Zurich. Here, three machines can been seen working together to cradle a ball in a net …

... before throwing the ball up in the air and them maneuvering to catch it as it drops back down. Watch video h<a href='http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hyGJBV1xnJI' target='_blank'>ere </a>

… before throwing the ball up in the air and them maneuvering to catch it as it drops back down. Watch video here

ETH Zurich have also put the quadrocopters to work building a six-meter model tower made by stacking blocks one on top of another.

ETH Zurich have also put the quadrocopters to work building a six-meter model tower made by stacking blocks one on top of another.

D'Andrea worked with Gramazio & Kohler architects on the project which was exhibited at the FRAC Centre in Orleans, France.

D’Andrea worked with Gramazio & Kohler architects on the project which was exhibited at the FRAC Centre in Orleans, France.

D'Andrea's academic adventures in robotics have borne fruit in the business world. He co-founded Kiva Systems -- a company which specializes in automated robotic systems for warehouses -- in 2003. The company was sold to Amazon for $775 million in 2012.

D’Andrea’s academic adventures in robotics have borne fruit in the business world. He co-founded Kiva Systems — a company which specializes in automated robotic systems for warehouses — in 2003. The company was sold to Amazon for $775 million in 2012.

The idea for Kiva Systems stemmed from D'Andrea's work at Cornell University's robot soccer team.

The idea for Kiva Systems stemmed from D’Andrea’s work at Cornell University’s robot soccer team.

D'Andrea was system architect of the Cornell Robot Soccer Team which won the RoboCup (an international robotics competition) four times.

D’Andrea was system architect of the Cornell Robot Soccer Team which won the RoboCup (an international robotics competition) four times.

The bold new world of flying robots
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(CNN) — Professor Raffaello D’Andrea isn’t short of admirers for his autonomous flying robots and the amazing tricks they perform.

Every week, he receives a flood of e-mails from excited people telling him how to use them, he says.

“Folks have contacted me about using them to deliver burritos and pizzas, paint walls, do search and rescue, monitor the environment, flying cameras for movies … It’s just endless,” D’Andrea says.

“I’m not going to pass judgment on whether they are good or bad … my role is to show people what is possible.”

It appears those possibilities are growing by the day at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) where D’Andrea leads a team of researchers at the Flying Machine Arena (FMA).

Set up by D’Andrea five years ago, the arena offers a “sandbox environment” for testing a fleet of progressively acrobatic quadrocopters.

In the beginning, these four-rotor machines learned to flip through 360-degrees, “dance” to music and even play the piano. Today, increasingly complex flight maneuvers are being attempted as quadrocopters work together to build a six-meter tall model tower and juggle balls and poles. It is an extraordinary and slightly befuddling sight to behold.

Read: Billion dollar mission to reach the Earth’s mantle

Quadrocopters are controlled by varying the relative speed of each rotor blades, or pairs of rotor blades to generate thrust and control pitch, roll and yaw. They’ve been around for a long time, says D’Andrea, but what’s making them so popular now as a creative tool is the shrinking size and cost of technology.

“In order to fly these things you need gyros. Only recently have they become small, accurate, and cheap enough to put on these vehicles,” he explains.

The tiny motors driving each rotor are also extremely powerful and cheap now, he says, as are the batteries.

Last month, ETH Zurich released video footage of their latest stunt showing a quadrocopter balancing a pole before tossing it to another quadrocopter which successfully catches and controls the pole.

“We tried various catching maneuvers,” said grad student Dario Brescianini, who D’Andrea and a colleague supervised during the research, “but none of them worked until we introduced a learning algorithm, which adapts parameters of the catching trajectory to eliminate systematic errors.”

It took Brescianini around three months to perfect the move, D’Andrea says, but the infrastructure behind the FMA has taken much longer to build up.

Draped in protective netting and crash mats, the FMA looks like a rather down-at-heal gymnasium on first inspection, but a closer look reveals a high-tech suite of equipment which is crucial to understanding how the ETH’s quadrocopters fly.

Atop the 10-meter cubed space sits a motion capture system (made up of eight cameras) which locate objects in the FMA at rates of more than 200 frames per second.

The data from this indoor GPS system is sent to computers where custom-built software sends commands to the quadrocopters via wifi.

Read: Scientists build human brain inside a supercomputer

“Aerodynamics is a very complex phenomena to model properly. If we can create machines that learn and adapt what they are doing in aerobatics it pushes use towards more intelligent systems. It’s a great research challenge,” D’Andrea says.

Within five years he expects to see a proliferation of flying machines being used in a variety of settings.

There are already companies exploring flying vehicles for inspection and for humanitarian purposes. In the case of the latter, he points to the efforts of Californian-based start-up Matternet.

Founded by Andreas Raptopoulos, the company have ambitious plans to build a network of autonomous vehicles delivering food and aid to inaccessible areas in developing countries.

In between in his other projects at ETH Zurich, which include developing balancing cubes and actuated wingsuits, D’Andrea is also looking for ways to commercialize the university’s innovations. He’s currently in the process of starting a company which aims to maximize the potential of their quadrocopters in the arts and entertainment industry.

If his previous forays into the business world are anything to go by then expect it to be wildly successful.

In 2003, D’Andrea co-founded Kiva Systems, applying the knowledge learnt creating a team of soccer-playing robots at Cornell University.

Read: Search for alien life on Earth

The company, which provides automated robot systems for warehouses, was sold to Amazon for $775 million in 2012.

“When we were doing RoboCup (an international robotics competition) it did not enter my mind that the learnings I would take from my students I had trained could be used to build a company like Kiva Systems,” he says.

“Basically, my mode of operation is really to focus on creating things that have never been done before and push the boundaries of what autonomous systems can do. In the process, do great research and educate people on how to really make things work and the applications will come.”

There seems no limit to what autonomous flying robots might be capable of in the future and their unstoppable rise is increasingly causing concern, particularly their use in espionage and warfare. Suppressing the technology is not an option though, D’Andrea argues.

“I’m a firm believer that if the military use this technology then it’s just a short step away from everyone using it,” he says.

“We don’t want the technology to be misused. The starting point is that our governments don’t misuse the technology. As a society, we should question how much of a role, if any, these robots have in warfare.”

Efforts to outlaw weapon-carrying drones have been gathering speed and support in recent months. NGO Human Rights Watch published a report (Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots) in November 2012 urging governments to pre-emptively ban autonomous weapons. Another campaign, “Stop the Killer Robots,” is being mobilized by the NGO International Committee for Robot Arms Control and is due to launch in April.

Far away from the social and political debates about the misuse of drones, D’Andrea is just keen to promote his teaching philosophy and how students should approach learning.

“I think there needs to be more room for unconstrained creation. We need to provide ways for folks, especially at university, to push the boundaries of what technology can do without being concerned about the immediate commercial application,” he says.

“We should be more concerned about fulfilling our dreams as children. What was it we wanted to do as children? We wanted to fly like birds. Well, why aren’t we doing that?”

 

VIDEO  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75VtzpYxaN4#t=19