Smart Cities of the Future: Self-Healing Construction Materials

It only makes sense to start this post with the accepted definition for smart cities. Briefly, they integrate technology into urban infrastructure, usually to improve sustainability, maximize efficiency and minimize energy usage.

In a recent newsletter published by Abundance Insider’s Peter Diamandis, he writes that the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates a $542.6 billion backlog needed for U.S. infrastructure repairs alone. An infrastructure which received a D+ in the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, published every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The same as 2013.

Intrigued by his comment that the world’s most expensive problems are also its most profitable opportunities, I decided to look into it further a la Jerry Maguire’s famous quote.

What I found is that the U.S. Department of Transportation announced major infrastructure investment to the sum of $856 Million as part of the Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) Grants.

As described:

INFRA discretionary grants support the Administration’s commitment to fixing our nation’s infrastructure by creating opportunities for all levels of government and the private sector to fund infrastructure, using innovative approaches to improve the processes for building significant projects, and increasing accountability for the projects that are built. In addition to providing direct federal funding, the INFRA discretionary grant program aims to increase the total investment by state, local, and private partners.

Space Florida will be awarded $90 million to replace the Cape Canaveral Spaceport Indian River Bridge with new twin high-level bridges, to allow transportation of oversized vehicles to launch sites.

Innovative approaches, you say?

One of the most widely used construction materials in the world, traditional concrete is susceptible to cracking and deteriorating under extreme heat and cold, which through the penetration of fluids, reduce its durability.

Self-healing construction materials, such as bio-concrete, are one of the innovations which could potentially address this issue.

In 2010, a graduate student and chemical engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island created a new type of smart concrete that heals its own cracks. Additionally, engineers at Delft University have also developed their own prototype of bio-concrete utilizing calcium lactate.

How this works is that the bio-concrete is mixed like regular concrete, but with a healing agent — able to survive in concrete for more than 200 years —  which remains intact during mixing, only becoming active if the concrete cracks and water gets in.

When cracks eventually begin to form in the concrete, water enters and open the capsules. The bacteria then germinate, multiply and feed on the lactate, and in doing so they combine the calcium with carbonate ions to form calcite, or limestone, which closes up the cracks.

Other futuristic technologies include self-healing glass, plastics, metals, and ceramics. The most common types of self-healing materials being polymers or elastomers.

“As futurist architecture firms start printing plastic and carbon-fiber houses, engineers are tackling self-healing plastic that could change the game with economies of scale,” Diamandis writes.

Meanwhile, in a land far away, Dubai strives to become the world’s smartest city by 2021. In their “Strategic Plan 2021,” the city aims to:

  • 3D-print 25 percent of its buildings;
  • Make 25 percent of transit automated and driverless;
  • Install hundreds of artificial “trees,” all leveraging solar power and providing the city with free WiFi, info-mapping screens, and charging ports;
  • Integrate passenger drones capable of carrying individuals to public transit systems;
  • And drive forward countless designs from underwater bio-desalination plants to smart meters and grids.

Locally, the City of West Palm Beach’s Sustainability Initiatives include reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, participating in climate planning and policy development, and adopting a longer-range perspective that will help the city to adapt as knowledge of climate change grows.

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