One thing can be said for the increasing demand for energy efficiency –it’s driving some serious innovation in construction materials and methods. Creativity is being sparked in test labs around the world and the efforts are leading to new products that are part sustainable and part science.
Take, for example, phase change materials with their microcapsules that capture the day’s heat and release it later at night as the temperature cools. By taking advantage of a material’s natural tendencies, these products can help rooms maintain stable temperatures. Not wanting to bore you with the technical details, Healthcare Construction & Operations explains it this way in an article it published online (http://www.hconews.com/articles/2012/10/17/harnessing-the-power-phase-change-materials):
“Essentially this works like an ice cube as it melts. Ice cubes don’t behave how you would expect them to. When placed in a warm environment, a glass of water with an ice cube floating in it heats up rapidly, but when it reaches 32 degrees – the melting point for ice – the water in the glass stops heating up. The melting process of the ice cube expends a lot of energy, which means the energy isn’t being released as heat; it’s being released through the act of melting, while the heat is essentially being stored in the process. The temperature of the water in the glass will actually hold steady at 32 degrees until the ice is fully melted, at which point, the heat will be released again at an accelerated rate.”
A cool application of phase change materials can be found in the Green Idea House (www.greenideahouse.com), where the ceiling and some wall panels incorporated the technology to help the project reach its net zero energy goal.
Moving from inside the walls to the great outdoors, there’s another cool “science-meets-sustainability” material that’s literally taking the streets by storm: photocatlytic concrete. The concrete mix contains titanium dioxide particles that act as a catalyst in breaking down nitrogen oxide into nitrates when exposed to sunlight. That means roadways and other cement structures can essentially “eat” smog and turn it into harmless compounds that can be easily (and safely) washed away. While the technology is still relatively new to the market, the City of Chicago took a chance with it on a streetscape enhancement in its Pilsen neighborhood, earning the project the honor of being called “America’s greenest street.”
The science behind what makes these products work is probably best left to the experts in their labs. Still, you have to admit that the end results are some pretty cool products. Let the experiments continue! Wonder what they’ll come up with next.