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Natural material innovation for sustainable living

A five-year Research Programme Grant of £1.75 million will bring together scientists, engineers, and architects to develop new natural materials capable of providing a renewable and energy-efficient alternative to traditional manufactured materials.

As the global population grows and becomes increasingly urban, traditional approaches to the construction of the built environment are unsustainable. Architecture and civil and structural engineering are among the most resource-intensive fields of human endeavour. Concrete and steel, energy intensive in production and significant contributors to global carbon dioxide, are used in most built infrastructure. Our vision is to establish new sustainable applications for renewable, energy-efficient and plant-based natural materials in the built environment, in order to improve building quality and mitigate the human impact on climate change.

The fundamental premise of our work is that natural materials are an essential component of a sustainable future, but that without modification, as history has shown, such materials are not up to the task. We propose to redesign natural materials to carry out different functions that will change the way we construct cities and civil infrastructure. This starts at the molecular level and continues through to engineered solutions that provide new approaches to sustainable living.

This programme brings together people and research in plant sciences, biochemistry, chemistry, fluid dynamics, engineering and architecture in a ground-breaking manner. It aims to fundamentally transform the way we build, and we will develop and extend research to enable the substitution of traditional manufactured materials with new naturally-based materials. A significant goal will be to ensure new materials are less energy intensive and more sustainable than those they replace.

The research programme has three key themes:

  1. Assembly of plant-based materials: we aim to understand better the fundamental processes that impart functional properties to novel natural materials.
  2. Impregnation of intact materials for better properties: we will address the fundamental question of how to combine complex functional materials (aqueous self-assembling polymers and dynamic shear-thinning gels) with natural long-fibre structural material (timber or bamboo). One aim is to increase the strength of the cellulose cell wall with a commensurate increase in macroscopic properties that can be exploited at the scale of a building.
  3. Understanding and designing improved functional materials: combining the two approaches in new material assemblies may yield the most interesting results from our research. We will use the knowledge developed in the breakdown and impregnation themes to unite an approach to create, understand and improve novel functional materials. We expect these initially to be structural materials, but are open to the possibility that we will uncover a range of uses and scales of materials

 

This programme brings together a diverse group of committed academics around work that will create significant change in the years ahead. We approached the Leverhulme Trust for funding because we work across many disciplines, and at many scales, and because we needed funding for a compelling vision, rather than a defined work package. We envision this as the beginning of an exciting future for natural materials, catalyzed by a new Centre for Natural Material Innovation in Cambridge. Our work will show a way for improved natural materials that are better for people, and better for the planet. 

 



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