Forty years from now, buildings could absorb the carbon emissions produced in cities and use those emissions to grow the skin of their facades and to create light. CNN’s Road to Durban explores the real world applications of bio-engineering building materials to mimic living systems.
Senior TED fellow Dr. Rachel Armstrong, professor of bio-engineering Dick Kitney, and architect Richard Hyams offer enthusiastic yet cautious insight into ‘synthetic biology’, the science of manufacturing life-like matter from synthesized chemicals.
Dr. Armstrong outlines the exciting world of protocells, synthesized chemicals that react to carbon and stop the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Depending on the desired chemical reaction, the protocells can produce limestone (healing any cracks in buildings walls and growing layers of protection), regulate temperature, and possibly produce power.
All three experts agree that moving the successful experimentation out of the lab and into the real world is challenging because of scalability and natural skepticism:
“As with any significant step-change, it’s slow to take off,” says Hyams. “From developers, to agents, to buyers themselves, people generally don’t want to be the first to risk investment in a relatively untested industry when the costs are high.”
Armstrong concludes with a sobering thought: “At present, buildings are big machines that take our resources and turn them into poison. In effect, we are living in their wastes like we were living in the effluent of animals during the Agrarian revolution.”
As cities and populations grow, solutions for dealing with carbon emissions will have to grow too. The need to reduce and manage carbon emissions requires innovative, seemingly off-the-wall ideas like synthetic biology and other advanced technologies previously not applied to buildings and infrastructure.