There are companies that generate revenue by developing additives, binders, or coatings from agricultural byproducts (feedstock) or other bio-based ingredients. However, these products are not capable of sensing, responding, or self-healing, as meant by DARPA. Examples of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) making bio-based building materials are Reactive Surfaces, which extracts enzymes from biological feedstocks and formulates them into anti-fouling and anti-microbial additives for coatings and polymers; Orineo, developing bio-based binders from waste feedstock; and Oxiteno, producing bio-based surfactants and solvents utilizing palm kernel oil, coconut oil, and vegetable oil as feedstocks. Currently, there is a trend of developing similar building products utilizing bio-waste due to the fact that the world population is increasing and our resources are limited to satisfy the adhering needs. There are other early-stage developments of responsive and self-healing products. Examples in our coverage are thermochromic films that can change transparency according to temperature, and self-healing concrete based on bacteria and biodegradable capsules developed by Hendrik Jonkers at Delft University of Technology. Despite some issues of functionality, cost and designers’ adaptation to new materials, construction professionals can still incorporate these non-living products into real-life projects. Nevertheless, these solutions are also not what the ELM program is looking for.
ELM is seeking living materials that can respond to the environment and/or heal themselves, enabling: “on-site growth, maintenance, and reproduction of a living structural material on inexpensive feedstock; the precise coordination of cells and inert particles to form tunable multi-scale patterns; the ability to self-repair in response to damage; genetically programmed multi-cellular patterns; and genetically programmed multi-cellular 3D shapes.” In this way, it aims to reduce production, transportation, and maintenance – hence, overall life-cycle costs. Even if the ELM program eventually succeeds in developing these living structural materials, their market adaptation would take a very long time. This is mainly because the current building codes and construction technologies are insufficient to handle dynamic behavior of living materials, and a fundamental change will be necessary for the adaptation of architecture and construction professionals. Those interested in bio-based materials should watch the proposals that will be sponsored by DARPA for future development opportunities.
Tugce Uslu is a Research Associate on the Sustainable Building Materials Intelligence team at Lux Research, which provides strategic advice and on-going intelligence for emerging technologies. For more information, visit Lux Research.