Mobile components on buildings, like blinds, often have a design that was copied from naturally occurring solutions. This is the subject of the research by a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the University of Freiburg and the University of Stuttgart. The aim is to outfit them with drive elements that can move without any energy input. One model is pine cones, which utilize the varying swelling behaviors of their issue to open when they are moist or close when dry.
Worldwide, the energy use of buildings accounts for 40 percent of total energy consumption. Around half of this is used for climate control. Although blinds and other mobile façade elements can be used to optimize the building shell’s transparency to heat and light, their electric motors also require energy to move these systems.
"Sustainable architecture urgently requires new materials if it is to live up to the high energy efficiency and climate protection requirements", says the chemist, forest scientist, and materials researcher Professor Cordt Zollfrank.
As the Chair of Biogenic Polymers on the Straubing Campus for Biotechnology and Sustainability of the TUM, he is researching the related basic principles. His goal is to develop drive elements and actuators that are able to convert signals into mechanical movements without consuming energy.
With architects, civil engineers and botanists, he has found futuristic methods that use natural mechanisms to improve the energy balance of buildings. In the paper, the team reports the status of the research in this area and demonstrates the possibilities of the models from the plant world.
Ripe pine and fir cones close their scales to protect the seeds from rainfall. But, during dry weather, they open up and release the seeds. During the movement, the composition of the cell walls plays a major role. They are composed primarily of lignin, which does not need to swell much, and cellulose, which is good for swelling up. Due to the different orientation of the cellulose fibrils of the scales' tissues, they curve inwards when humidity is high and outwards when it is dry.
"The exciting thing about this is that the energy for these movements does not come from metabolic processes, but solely from physical mechanisms and material properties", says Professor Zollfrank.
Through the combination of materials with varying swelling propensities, he has already succeeded at developing such biomimetic drive elements, called actuators. These elements are also composed of two layers of materials which absorb varying amounts of liquid and behave similarly to their naturally occurring models.
Before they can be used on a large scale in architecture, the material researchers still need to solve one problem that affects scalability. The larger the cell or tissue, the longer the time required for the water to penetrate its pores towards the inside. Something that takes two hours in a pine cone would take several years in a building. Hence, in order to utilize the hydraulics of pine cones for applications in architecture, a physical limit will first need to be overcome.
For this reason, Zolifrank proposes a type of restructuring process at the material level. "We decouple the tissue size and take the whole thing to the magnitude of an individual cell", he explains.
Via cleverly chosen cross-links, a loose cell complex is created whose individual components nevertheless still act like individual cells and absorb water extremely rapidly.
"The question now is how such cross-links can be designed as efficiently as possible and how to create them in any size", says Zollfrank.
However, for later practical applications, imagine porous biopolymer materials whose pores are filled with an extremely hydrophilic liquid (hydrogel). Material researchers are already working on this. It is just a matter of time before we find out which solution will ultimately make its way into the architecture of the future.