Sustainable Innovation in New Materials

By Nathan Nakahara & Celine Chen Published on Nov. 01, 2018

The Past and Present of Sustainable Materials

As our population expands across the world, the decision to build sustainably is no longer a personal choice, but a regulation. Buildings alone consume 20 – 50% of the physical resources extracted by humans.

The building trade is a great consumer of natural resources such as wood, minerals, water, and energy. In addition, buildings, once built, continue to be a direct cause of pollution because of the emissions produced in them or their impact on the ground. Better construction and use of buildings in the European Union would influence 42% of final energy consumption, about 35% of our greenhouse gas emissions and more than 50% of all extracted materials. It could also help to save up to 30% of water consumption. 

It is essential for industry leaders to begin adopting more sustainable building practices - not only will this benefit the environment, but corporations will also see improved brand image, happier shareholders, and reduced costs. 

Architecture and Construction

architecture construction

Strategies for sustainable construction are rapidly emerging and address the pressing consequences during and beyond architecture and construction. Architectural and construction firms have increasingly teamed up on projects to reuse existing buildings to repurpose them for new housing and office spaces. Transforming and retrofitting already standing structures decreases the amount of new materials and energy required for a project while giving new life to and maintaining the history of a community.

As far as the specific components used in construction, it is imperative to consider the carbon impacts of a material. Commonly used building materials such as concrete, steel, and sturdy plastics tend to emit higher levels of carbon dioxide. On the other hand, biomass materials, which consist of wood and other plant matter, can absorb and store carbon dioxide. Therefore, fully replacing or balancing out harsher materials with carbon dioxide friendly materials, minimizing consequences of climate change.

tesla building

Many buildings have begun to integrate energy storage and plants internally instead of relying on traditional, decades-old distribution grids to power their operations. Having new centrally organized power networks allows for homeowners and businesses to take advantage of reliable allocation and creation of energy within smaller spaces. For example, Tesla’s Powerwall stores up to 14 kilowatt-hours of power within its lithium-ion battery and sustain a home’s power for nearly 2 days. This product and similar ones diversify the sources of energy for buildings, offering options in the event of a power outage or scarcity.

Eco-Friendly Electronics & Materials 

Sustainable electronics and materials are made with non-toxic chemicals, recycled plastics and metals, and organic matter, reducing carbon impacts during manufacturing. By actively repurposing and using environmentally friendly materials, companies and consumers reduce the impacts of devices and services while minimizing chemicals harmful to human health.

Leaders in the electronics industry are making innovative material choices in their production processes, reducing the harmful effects of manufacturing on the ecosystem. Many are streamlining this process by working with innovative sustainability startups who have already developed the necessary technology. 

Living Ink Technologies is one such startup. They are a biomaterials company on a mission to use sustainable algae technologies to replace petroleum-derived products, such as ink. They are changing the way ink is made by using algae as pigments for eco-friendly ink products. 

Another corporation making waves in sustainable new materials is Dell. Dell created the industry’s first ever closed-loop process for manufacturing a computer by using recycled plastics and forming them into new parts. As far as packaging, Dell has turned to using organic alternatives such as bamboo, mushrooms, and wheat straw instead of the traditional oil and plastic based packaging. This is all part of their sustainability mission to have 50 million pounds of recycled, viable components by 2020, develop fully recyclable and compostable packaging, and recover 2 billion pounds of electronic waste. With eco-friendly processes and materials, companies and consumers can both participate in protecting human and environmental health while still using and engaging in everyday life.  

Waste Reduction

waste reduction

The accelerated expansion of cities around the world has significantly contributed to the increased waste of construction and demolition materials. Instead of being disposed of, such materials may be recycled, reused, and rebought.

Remaining concrete, steel, and wood can all be recycled into new products such as furniture. Purchasing used construction materials allow companies to fully benefit from the efforts of recycling and reusing as well as lowering construction costs by recovering locally sourced materials.

The use of electronic products has grown substantially over the past two decades, changing the way and the speed in which we communicate and how we get information and entertainment. Simple acts like donating used electronics for reuse extends the lives of valuable products. Recycling electronics also prevents valuable materials from going into the waste stream. A long-term approach towards electronics stewardship is necessary both at work and at home.

Substitute Building Materials

substitute building materials

The traditional construction industry is notorious for its negative effects on natural resources and environments. With sustainability becoming an increasingly important topic, numerous alternative building materials have emerged to help minimize the environmental impact of traditional construction. 

Asbestos Alternatives

1) Cellulose fiber: Made from finely shredded newsprint and chemically treated to reduce moistness and increase resistance to fire, it can be made from up to 85% recycled material.

2) Flour Fillers: Crack and crevice fillers and extenders 100% made out of natural materials made from pecan shell flour, wheat flour, rice flour, rice hull ash.

Construction and Building Alternatives

1) Wool Bricks: Incorporates wool and a natural polymer found in seaweed to the clay in bricks. This makes it 37% stronger than traditional bricks, highly resistant to cold and wet climate, while also being nontoxic.

2) Solar Tiles: Made from glass, solar tiles are fully integrated into the buildings, unlike normal solar units.  They are a useful alternative for traditional roof tiles made of concrete or clay. 

3) Sustainable Concrete: Crushed glass, wood chips, and slag is added to traditional concrete in order to use less material.

4) Paper Insulation: Made from recycled newspapers and cardboard, this material is insect resistant and fire retardant when mixed with borax, boric acid, and calcium carbonate.

5) Triple Glazed Windows: They include three layers of glass instead of one.  The glass creates stronger insulation by using krypton between the layers to aid insulation. A low-emissivity coating added to the glass can further prevent heat from escaping.

eco friendly electronics

6) Straw Bales: Provides high levels of insulation from hot and cold climates while being both affordable and sustainable.

7) Grasscrete: A method of laying concrete flooring with open patterns to allow grass and plants to grow in order to improve storm and rainwater absorption and drainage.

8) Rammed Earth: A dirt tamped down extremely tightly in wooden forms - it can be further supported with rebar or bamboo. Mechanical tampers can reduce the human labor needed.

9) HempCrete: Material made from the woody inner fibers of the hemp plant, bound with lime to create concrete-like material which makes it both strong and lightweight.

10) Bamboo: Bamboo is a high-tensile strength, lightweight, fast-growing renewable material used for framing buildings and shelters. It can be used as an alternative to concrete and rebar.

11) Mycelium: Made from root structure of fungi and mushrooms, it is water, fire, and mold resistant. Typically formed into brick shapes, it can even stop bullets! These bricks can also sustain extreme temperatures.

12) Ferrock: Uses recycled materials including steel dust to create concrete-like building material while being stronger than concrete.

13) AshCrete: A concrete alternative that uses fly ash instead of cement. Fly ash is a byproduct of burning coal - Ashcrete allows 97% of traditional components in concrete to be replaced with recycled material.

14) Timbercrete: Made up of sawdust and concrete, it is lighter than concrete, and reduces transport emissions. Timercrete can be formed into blocks, brick, and paver shapes.

Bio Materials

Biomaterials are substances that have been created to interact with inherent biological functions and systems for therapy or diagnosis. They often facilitate healing and recovery following injury or disease and can be made up of natural or synthetic materials. Commonly made of metals, ceramics, plastic, glass, and living cells, biomaterials are used for a wide range of medical purposes.

While the use of biomaterials has saved many lives, challenges still inhibit use of more advanced functions of medical devices. Even with rigorous FDA tests, materials cannot be guaranteed safe for all people to use.


Since all individuals respond differently to different stimuli, a major challenge is the unpredictable nature of biological systems and their ability to effectively adapt and respond to biomaterials placed within the body. Currently, there are efforts to use materials that naturally exist within the human body that may aid in processes such as metabolism. Alongside this, an analysis of bodily fluids, immune system levels, and other surveillance-type systems within an individual’s body can be conducted to determine compatibility between a person and a biomaterial device.

On the technical side of biomaterials, health care providers are struggling to regulate responses between the biological systems and biomaterials themselves. Implementing biomaterial devices within the body often causes other unrelated, undesired body parts to be affected and spreads its effects to the surrounding environment. Therefore, biomaterials professionals are striving to adjust devices and materials to actively aid or heal biological systems while neutralizing or isolating foreign entities and processes.

Historically, biomaterials have relied on stabilizing devices and materials when conducting healing or operations within the body. However, professionals have monitored and analyzed the inherent abilities of the body to heal. Gearing biomaterials to take advantage of innate human healing processes can greatly improve the rate of regeneration of a damaged bodily function, especially those involved with bones and the skin.

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