While not a new material, graphene has been impractical to use in construction since its discovery. In theory, it is an excellent building material, as it is incredibly lightweight while being stronger and stiffer than both steel and carbon fibre. Potentially, it could be combined with more traditional materials to create stronger beams and cables, allowing for more impressive structures.
However, graphene is so difficult to produce that builders have rarely been able to use more than a few flakes of it per project. Until now, that is, as the US' Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a new way of producing it using a technique known as chemical vapour deposition.
Ivan Vlassiouk, leader of the team responsible for the project, said that this discovery "considerably extends the potential applications and market for graphene". The next step is to reduce the cost and improve scalability, then the material can be used much more widely.
Staying on the concrete theme, researchers from MIT have published a paper that proposes taking cement out of the equation altogether. The researchers, from the university's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are looking to the natural world - proposing the use of organic materials like bones, shells and sea sponges to bind the aggregate in concrete together.
The research is a fresh attempt to solve the twin drawbacks of Portland cement - the energy needed to make it, and the potential for microcracking over time. The idea came about when the team contrasted the extensive knowledge on the structure of natural materials with the 'guesswork' on concrete's internal structure - so it made sense to use more familiar materials in a 'bottom-up' approach to concrete production. 'Bone-crete' is not a material ready to be used just yet - it is more of a starting point for engineers to change the way they choose the composition of building products.
Balsa wood is useful thanks to its stiffness despite being incredibly lightweight; however, it is difficult to produce and therefore expensive. However, a team of researchers at Harvard University have managed to create cellular composite materials of unprecedented light weight and stiffness that could replace it.
Fibre-reinforced epoxy-based thermosetting resins and 3D extrusion printing techniques have been used to create the synthetic replacement. The researchers used these methods to create a 'honeycomb' effect in carbon-fibre epoxy materials.
The end result is something that could potentially completely replace balsa wood. Not only would it be cheaper, it also eliminates the problems the wood has with irregular grains that make it difficult to use in precision structures.
Research from the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge has led to new understanding of the molecular structure of wood. This could lead to new uses for plants in construction, as well as an improved version of one of the most common building materials in the world.
The scientists found that the xylan polymer - which makes up about a third of wood's structure - has an unusual shape. This enabled them to study how molecules and cells within plant walls are arranged.
Professor Paul Dupree of the University of Cambridge said: "This major step forward in understanding the molecular architecture of plant cell walls will impact the use of plants for renewable materials, energy and for building construction."