Imagine a typical city. Probably the image you have in your mind involves skyscrapers made out of steel and concrete, grey roads beneath them and some traffic. Now try to replace the materials with bone, how would it look like? Would you like to live in a city like this?
This question is the main point of Michelle L. Oyen's research within Bioingineering Department at Cambridge University. She works on a small scale samples of artificial bone and eggshells to test their possible utilization in construction industry. Both bone and eggshell are composites of proteins and minerals: first gives them resistance to fracture, second hardness. When making artificial ones, Michelle Oyen combines minerals with collagen - the most abundant protein in the animal world. Right now, how to find a synthetic substitute is one of the most urgent problems.
The other one is to spread awareness about the need to find alternatives for steel-concrete constructions. They are responsible for as much as a tenth of worldwide carbon emissions, which is even more than air travel contributes. "What we’re trying to do is to rethink the way that we make things,” says Oyen. “Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems – they fundamentally do things differently".
Other natural material that may serve as an alternative to steel and concrete is wood, much lighter and renewable. Michael Ramage from the Department of Architecture at Cambridge University looks for ways to build tall buildings out of it. It can speed up construction process and have a positive impact on city life too: "What needs to be delivered in five trucks for a concrete building can be delivered in one truck for a timber building. That’s an incredible advantage, for cost, for environment, for traffic and for cyclists".