Given that the architecture-engineering sector is responsible for a lot of the world's energy consumption, scientists are working, with some urgency, to find ways of developing technologies to improve building energy performance.
That’s why a large part of a nanotechnology conference in Dublin this week was devoted to efforts within the European community to apply nanotech to construction.
Europe is in the final year of a four-year research program looking at building energy performance.
It’s a €500 million (C$677 million) project and a quarter of that funding was devoted to nanotech.
Jesus Isoird, manages research and innovation programs for the Acciona S.A., a Spanish conglomerate working in the fields of energy and infrastructure.
His team has been looking at ways in which nanomaterials can help make buildings more energy-efficient.
“The building sector (in Europe) accounts for 40 per cent of energy consumption and two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions,” he said in an interview before the conference.
The research being done, he said, is a “major priority,” in the EU’s efforts to achieve a 20 per cent reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, increase the share energy derived from renewable sources to 20 per cent, and achieving a 20 per cent improvement in overall energy efficiency — all by 2020.
Nanotechnology comes into play in several ways, he said.
It makes it possible to create ceramic materials that are self-cleaning. Any dirt that clings to the surfaces simply rinses away in the rain. New coatings are being devised that will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Isoird also said that “with lighter and thinner insulation materials, construction costs could go down.”
Research will mean that a whole new range of composite materials could result, based on fibre-reinforced polymers.
Nanotech, he said, could also improve the performance of solar photovoltaic panels or solar thermal systems.
Part of the improvement in solar energy storage will be the development of systems using phase-change materials, or PCMs.
PCMs, mostly paraffins, can be encapsulated, then embedded in drywall, or even in concrete.
There are many PCMs.
They absorb heat as the temperature rises until they melt.
At that point they absorb even larger amounts of heat, but without a significant rise in temperature until all the material is transformed to its liquid phase.
Then, when the ambient temperature drops, the PCM changes back to its solid phase, releasing the latent heat it has stored.
PCMs aren’t a new idea. Scientists have tinkered with them for decades, and there have been efforts to make and market drywall with paraffin PCMs encapsulated within it.
But commercial success has been elusive, and development work continues.
Another old idea that has achieved new currency is aerogel.
These substances start their life as a gel, physically similar to the Jello that kids all seem to love.
But when the liquid component is separated out, what remains is an ultra-low density, porous solid framework that is both lightweight and strong.
It’s the framework that keeps the liquid from simply running all over the place.
And it could become a key part of a new family of lightweight panels with extremely high insulating performance.
A lot of the things scientists are working on are already being tested in individual buildings here and there in Europe, so that scientists can satisfy themselves that the new technologies work in the real environment, and not just in the laboratory.
When that hurdle has been cleared, the next step will be to find companies willing and able to bring them to market.
So, while some of the work done by Isoird and his group sounds like science fiction, it is really something that, within just a few years, will begin finding its way onto a jobsite near you.
Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.