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Academic collaboration eyes biological building services breakthroughs

£8m in government funding is being provided to two UK universities to develop biotech building materials with the aim to transform ventilation and IAQ management

Researchers from Newcastle University and Northumbria University are in the process of designing a ‘living building’ trial that will incorporate biotech principles to offer potential new approaches to manage ventilation, indoor air quality. It is also looking at the possibility of materials capable of self-repairing in some cases.

The project, which is expected to be based on the Newcastle University campus, will be designed as a working home that can incorporate ongoing research into materials that make use of principles more associated with medicine than architecture.

Both universities will be receiving £8m in government funding to create a regional hub focused on biotechnology in the built environment. This will research potential applications for buildings that are able to consume their own waste or even self-repair in the case of cracks or external damage to building materials.

Dr Martyn Dade-Robertson, a reader in design computation in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, said that a range of potential applications were being looked at.

This included applications to ensure a more balanced microbial environment better suited for human beings.

                                                                                                                                                          A conceptual image of how biotech may transform a range of key functions

He added, “What we’re interested in doing is working out whether we can develop technologies to monitor the microbial environment, possibly through a ventilation system, so you are able to track and scan the microbes in the environment at any one time.”

Dr Dade-Robertson said that this approach could be adopted in hospitals to detect viruses and other dangerous bacteria.

He also noted applications for ventilation with work now underway into composite materials such as latex blended with a microscopic layer of microbe coating that folds up when dried and relaxes when in contact with moisture.

Dr Dade-Robertson added, “So imagine if you had a membrane of a building that sweated, so image when you are in a bathroom and steam begins to build up, then these sweat glands would open up in your wall and let ventilation through. This could be done within the material, so you do not have to have a sensor anywhere.”


On a broader construction level, research was also considering the potential for biological cement, according to Dr Dade-Robertson.

He said this could remove the need for carbon intensive concrete manufacture by looking at microbes that can induce calcium carbonate to form in their environment. This process could be used to bind an aggregate such as sand together and create a bio-cement theoretically at room temperatures that reduces energy requirements during production.

Dr Dade-Robertson added, “The results are potentially as good as concrete, it’s just that we have to scale up the process and there is some challenges in doing that and that is where we are at.”

Other research into biotechnology for buildings has considered the role microbes may play in creating a self-healing material that can use sporulation within compounds such as a concrete mix. In the case where such a material cracks, exposure to water can reanimate the microbes to induce calcium carbonate formation to reseal the material.

The Netherlands based Delft University of Technology was currently leading research in this field, according to Dr Dade-Robertson.

Market potential

From a functional side, the implementation of biotech building materials was viewed by Dr Dade-Robertson in most cases as being closer to fundamental science than “mission readiness” – this is the point whereby the technologies may reach the construction supply chain.

However, a core part of the proposed biotechnology hub was to create a pilot project based on living house concept. The proposed house would initially be constructed in a mostly conventional way, such as by creating a timber-framed, air tight structure include functional kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

However, the modularised approach means that rooms or systems can then be swapped out for new biotech materials and systems over several years, according to Dr Dade-Robertson.

He said, “The hope is that after three years we will have our first at least near to market tech in some of these areas.”

“Some of them are more blue sky than others, but our project plan involves us working with industry collaborators to make sure we have a clear route to market in the near-term really.”

Government support

Government funding for the hub will also see work undertaken to look at how microbial technologies, such as enzymes that can break down plastics, may also be incorporated into a building’s systems to create a metabolism that can process waste to generate energy.

Professor Gary Black, a specialist in protein biochemistry at Northumbria University and a co-director of the hub said the broad remit for the project would be to create living homes that are responsive to the built environment and the people that live them. In effect, work is intended to result in biological smart homes and buildings.

Professor Black said, “The current construction of buildings is unsustainable due to its carbon footprint, the hope would be to use this model in housing in the future.”

Work for the projects will be undertaken at a Micro-Design Lab based at Northumbria University and a Macro Bio-Design Lab based at the campus in Newcastle. A total of 22 staff are now being sought to work on the hub project that will officially commence on August 1 this year.

A multidisciplinary team from both universities will be working on the project. This team will include Professor Rachel Armstrong and Dr Ben Bridgens from Newcastle University and Dr Meng Zhang and Dr Darren Smith from Northumbria University.

The research team said that it was also looking for building services specialists such as ventilation manufacturers to potentially collaborate on some low risk trials and tests projects to look at potential market applications.

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