City Made Of Bone

Is there a better way to construct cities? Steel and concrete, along with their advantages, are very energy-intensive ways to build. Perhaps Nature can point the way...

[Bioengineer Dr Michelle Oyen of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering] works in the field of biomimetics – literally ‘copying life’. In her lab, with funding support from the US Army Corps of Engineers, she constructs small samples of artificial bone and eggshell, which could be used as medical implants, or even be scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials.

Like the real things, artificial bone and eggshell are composites of proteins and minerals. In bone, the proportions of protein and mineral are roughly equal – the mineral gives bone stiffness and hardness, while the protein gives it toughness or resistance to fracture. While bones can break, it is relatively rare, and they have the benefit of being self-healing – another feature that engineers are trying to bring to biomimetic materials.

In eggshell, the ratios are different: about 95% mineral to 5% protein, but even this small amount of protein makes eggshell remarkably tough considering how thin it is.

When making the artificial bone and eggshell, the mineral components are ‘templated’ directly onto collagen, which is the most abundant protein in the animal world. “One of the interesting things is that the minerals that make up bone deposit along the collagen, and eggshell deposits outwards from the collagen, perpendicular to it,” says Oyen. “So it might even be the case that these two composites could be combined to make a lattice-type structure, which would be even stronger – there’s some interesting science there that we’d like to look into.”

In her lab, Oyen and her team have been making samples of artificial eggshell and bone via a process that could be easily scaled up – and since the process takes place at room temperature, the samples take very little energy to produce. But it may be some time before we’re living in bone and eggshell houses.

This is a similar idea to architectural coral, an idea proposed by Larry Niven in his 1968 novel A Gift From Earth. Here's how it works:

The remnants of the shaping balloon, which gave all architectural coral buildings their telltale bulge, had been carefully scraped away...

...A genetic manipulation of ordinary sea coral, it was the cheapest building material known. The only real cost was in the plastic balloon that guided the growth of the coral and enclosed the coral's special air-borne food.
(Read more about Larry Niven's architectural coral)

The article continues by pointing out the advantages of using a natural material like timber to construct buildings; skyscrapers as tall as 14 stories have been constructed.

Wouldn't it be easier to grow them? Take a look at this article on the house trees if the Iszic. If you want to go all natural, Dr. Oren, this is the way to go.

Via The University of Cambridge; thanks to (((Æthelind))) for pointing this item out.

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