Materials for the Carbohydrate Economy

Detail of the wheat straw tile facade of the Vanke 2049 Pavilion, Shanghai

One of the most significant future transformations in the material sphere will be the development of a carbohydrate economy. This will be a global economy based primarily on renewable material feedstocks—as opposed to our current economy, which is founded largely on the consumption of nonrenewable feedstocks like fossil fuels.

David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reminds us that we used to have a carbohydrate economy: two hundred years ago, Americans consumed two tons of vegetables for every ton of minerals; but thirty-five years ago, we consumed eight tons of minerals for every ton of vegetables. Cambridge professor Michael Ashby has also chronicled humanity’s global journey towards a near-total dependence on nonrenewable materials. The implications of this trajectory are clear—by definition, one cannot base a future primarily on nonrenewable resources.

Despite our near-total reliance on nonrenewable feedstocks, however, the situation is gradually changing. Many countries now mandate biofuel use, for example. Bioplastics are quickly replacing petroleum-based plastics in many applications, vegetable-based inks and oils are becoming more commonplace, and agricultural products are diversifying. These changes, which I’ve outlined in more detail below, are exerting a direct influence on the design disciplines.

Increasing renewable feedstocks

The first necessary transformation towards a carbohydrate economy will involve the expanded development of renewable resources, including both agricultural and forest-based products. This will include a rapid increase in the production of biopolymers for a variety of uses—from simplistic substances like packaging and films to complex products like microprocessors and composite panels for automobiles. Wood will also be processed in new ways that enhance its durability and functionality, and an increased number of mutant hybrids formed by the merging of wood and plastic will appear.

Shrilk

Shrilk, the Wyss Institute’s insect cuticle-inspired polymer that outperforms aluminum.

Plant-based feedstocks exhibit two benefits over other renewable resources: biomass is a natural store of energy and carbon, and it can be made into tangible products. However, significant challenges impede the rapid industrialization of biomass resources, including increased competition with food and energy markets, unsustainable harvesting practices, and the need to create more incentives for farmers. Considering these impediments, we must practice a thoughtful and balanced approach towards the expansion of bio-based feedstocks.

Closing resource loops

As the cradle-to-cradle model advocates, the carbohydrate economy will necessitate the closure of gaps in material life cycles, especially with technical nutrients. Materials like metals and plastics typically require less energy and resources to recycle, compelling us to treat all technical nutrients as food for new materials.

“Although our consumption of virgin mineral resources continues to escalate, so does the number of ingenious applications of recycled waste”

Although our consumption of virgin mineral resources continues to escalate, so does the number of ingenious applications of recycled waste. Many of these applications greatly extend the first lives of products—such as countertops made from discarded household containers, messenger bags fabricated from vinyl billboard facings, or wall panels made from waste bottle glass.

Husque, a composite material made from discarded macadamia nut shells

Husque, a composite material made from discarded macadamia nut shells.

Biological nutrient waste is also a critical feedstock for new materials, and can help offset accelerating demands for virgin biomass. Like the trend towards functional upcycling seen in technical nutrient cycles, waste biomass can be incorporated into products whose lives greatly outlive the materials’ initial uses. Examples include insulating panels made from crop waste such as buckwheat husks or cottonseed hulls, tiles made from discarded coconut shells, and furniture generated from waste paper.

Relocalization

Relocalization involves a reassessment of local resources and material practices in a post-petroleum world. Based on the idea of glocalization—a term derived from the Japanese dochakuka, which describes the adaptation of global farming practices to local contexts—relocalization seeks active reengagement with local resources and material knowledge.

“In addition to the transportation energy savings offered by resources that are close-at-hand, a renewed evaluation of preindustrial material practices can enlighten the creation of new products”

In addition to the transportation energy savings offered by resources that are close-at-hand, a renewed evaluation of preindustrial material practices can enlighten the creation of new products. Examples include air-purifying paint produced from powdered washi paper and local pigments in Japan, or new masonry wall assemblies inspired by the historic Chinese practice of repurposing bricks and tiles from local demolished buildings.

Washi-laminated glass, an old material technology made new

Washi-laminated glass, an old material technology made new.

Relocalization also encourages vigorous development of network-based digital fabrication methods. With the increased affordability and widespread distribution of rapid prototyping technologies such as three-dimensional printing, designers can readily upload product design files and processing instructions to online manufacturing websites. These design files are then sent to qualified fablabs located near the customer and manufactured there with local resources. This method promises a tremendous reduction in the shipping costs incurred by our current, long-distance global distribution system.

Optimizing energy

A future of expensive fossil fuels will require innovative methods for enhancing energy effectiveness. New products and systems that harness and store reliable sources of local, renewable energy will play an important role in powering the carbohydrate economy. These products will rely upon both technical feedstocks such as silicon as well as living materials like algae. Examples include tiny spherical photovoltaic cells that harness light energy from all directions and biophotovoltaic fuel cells that derive energy from moss.

Moss Table, an example of biophotovoltaic furniture that powers interior lighting

Moss Table, an example of biophotovoltaic furniture that powers interior lighting.

Low energy lighting strategies will also proliferate as a means to reduce electricity consumption. Energy efficient sources like LEDs or natural sunlight, coupled with efficient light propagation materials like multilayered optical films or fiber optic strands, will enable the deployment of intelligent, self-powered products that reduce reliance on the electrical grid. Light-optimizing systems such as mirror ducts and light pipes can also reduce the energy footprints of buildings.

Imbuing Intelligence

Not all materials in a bio-based, relocalized economy will be primitive or “low-tech.” Responsive materials and systems will add critical monitoring capability and material longevity within a reimagined constructed environment. Smart products capable of tracking local environmental changes will make the invisible visible—an especially important feature when addressing concerns like air and water quality or hidden stresses in critical infrastructure. Autonomic materials capable of self-protection and repair will add years of life to products that experience heavy use, such as self-healing polymers for athletic equipment or self-repairing concrete for roadbeds.

Decker Yeadon’s autonomic, light-regulating Homeostatic Facade System

Decker Yeadon’s autonomic, light-regulating Homeostatic Facade System.

The propagation of smart materials will facilitate the production of multifunctional, interactive surfaces that emulate the operation of natural organisms. This is particularly important for critical boundary surfaces such as vehicular bodies or building facades. The integration of a variety of responsive materials within compact, smart assemblies promises to optimize material resources, reduce energy requirements, and augment the capabilities of critical surfaces.

A New Foundation

The realization of this new material milieu will require significant transformation. As David Morris says, “We may be changing the very material foundation of industrial economies.” The carbohydrate economy won’t happen overnight, but it is already underway. Moreover, once this new economy has matured, it will define our future reality. It is therefore important that designers understand the imminent material transformations in order to lead, rather than follow, the inevitable change.


About Blaine Brownell
Blaine is assistant professor and co-director of the Master of Science program in Sustainable Design at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture.
> More about Blaine Brownell


Hello Materials exhibitionAbout the Hello Materials exhibition
Experience fascinating examples of present and future materials and gain an insight into what they will mean to society and the individual. Visit the exhibition between the 2nd of April and the 21st of September 2012.
> Visit ddc.dk for more information about the Hello Materials exhibition

3 responses to “Materials for the Carbohydrate Economy

  1. Pingback: Warren Ellis » GUEST INFORMANT: Debbie Chachra

  2. Pingback: Materials for the Carbohydrate Economy | transstudio

  3. tire pyrolysis machine,worlds best waste tyre
    pyrolysis machinery manufacturers,waste oil pyrolysis machine,pyrolysis machine,pyrolysis machine buyer,waste plastic pyrolysis machine,Waste tire
    recycling machine,waste plastic refining,Waste tires oil refining equipment,trye pyrolysis machine,Waste Plastic
    Recycling Machine,rubber pyrolysis machines,Waste Oil Refining Plant,waste pyrolysis plant,waste tyre recycling machine,Waste tyre pyrolysis plant,
    waste tire pyrolysis plant,waste tire recycling plant,automatic plastic pyrolysis
    plant,waste engine oil recycling to diesel machine,
    waste tyre plant,complete pyrolysis plant equipment,pyrolysis plant uk,waste tyre pyrolysis,waste tyre refining equipment,waste plastic
    to oil machine,tire pyrolysis plant,tyre pyrolysis
    plant,equipment required for pyrolysis plant
    for plastic waste,waste tyre oil plant 2014,tyre recycling
    pyrolysis plant,oil from waste tyre machine manufacturer,tyre pyrolysis machine seller,
    rubber pyrolysis plant,plastic pyrolysis oil distillation machine
    to diesel,waste tyre recycling pyrolysis plant china,
    tire pyrolysis oil distillation machine to diesel,the best of waste tyre pyrolysis plant,tyre pyrolysis,
    tyre pyrolysis oil,pyrolysis plant,waste plastic pyrolysis plant,pyrolysis tyre recycling plant,hi
    tech waste oil recycling,waste engine oil diesel machine,tire pyrolysis plant usa,Waste tyre recycling plant,tyre pyrolisys plant,pyrolysis
    machine manufacturers,waste tyre recycling,pyrolysis machine manufacturers ,pyrolysis plants,plastic pyrolysis plant,pyrolysis plant in gujarat,
    used oil recycling equipment,tire pyrolysis plant manufacturers,oil
    refining machine,oil distillation machine,chinese tyre recycling plant,small scale plastic recycling plant,continuous pyrolysis plant,other rubber recycling machines,pyrolysis machines for sale,Oil refining equipment,distillation machine!
    It’s an excellent project, I came to know about this project through my friend.
    Convert wastes to wealth, renewable alternative resources, come to
    see Huayin waste tyre pyrolysis plant, supply waste tires/plastics pyrolysis plant and used oil distillation plant to worldwide clients.

    Focus on customer success! Head on to find it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s