Future Silk

[Image: Neri Oxman’s otherwise unrelated “Silk Pavilion” at MIT; photo by Steven Keating via Wired].

Research published last month in the journal Nano Letters suggests that silkworms fed a steady diet of carbon nanotubes can produce structurally stronger silk:

Silkworm silk is gaining significant attention from both the textile industry and research society because of its outstanding mechanical properties and lustrous appearance. The possibility of creating tougher silks attracts particular research interest. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are widely studied for their use as reinforcement. In this work, we report mechanically enhanced silk directly collected by feeding Bombyx mori larval silkworms with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and graphene. We found that parts of the fed carbon nanomaterials were incorporated into the as-spun silk fibers, whereas the others went into the excrement of silkworms.

Using animals as living 3D printers is thus more of a reality every year.

It’s also worth noting here that the resulting super-silk exhibited “enhanced electrical conductivity,” implying some strange new world in which conductive textiles and other flexible, wearable electronic circuitry could be woven in space by augmented silkworms.

(Spotted by Benjamin Bratton).

Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach

[Image: The new plastic geology, photographed by Patricia Corcoran, via Science].

Incredibly, a “new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii,” Science reports.

This new rock type, referred to as a “plastiglomerate,” requires a significant heat-source in order to form, as plastiglomerates are, in effect, nothing but molten lumps of plastic mixed-in with ambient detritus. Hawaii with its coastal and marine volcanoes, offers a near-perfect formational landscape for this artificially inflected geology to emerge—however, Patricia Corcoran, one of the discoverers of these uncanny rocks, thinks we’ll likely find them “on coastlines across the world. Plastiglomerate is likely well distributed, it’s just never been noticed before now, she says.”

We’ve been surrounded by artificial geologies all along.

But is it really geology? Or is it just melted plastic messily assembled with local minerals? Well, it’s both, it seems, provided you look at it on different time-scales. After heavier chunks of plastiglomerate form, fusing with “denser materials, like rock and coral,” Science writes, “it sinks to the sea floor, and the chances it will become buried and preserved in the geologic record increase.” It can even form whole veins streaking through other rock deposits: “When the plastic melts, it cements rock fragments, sand, and shell debris together, or the plastic can flow into larger rocks and fill in cracks and bubbles,” we read.

It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that our landfills are also acting like geologic ovens: baking huge deposits of plastiglomerate into existence, as the deep heat (and occasional fires) found inside landfills catalyzes the formation of this new rock type. Could deep excavations into the landfills of an earlier, pre-recycling era reveal whole boulders of this stuff? Perhaps.

The article goes on to refer to the work of geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, which is exactly where I would have taken this, as well. Zalasiewicz has written in great detail and very convincingly about the future possible fossilization of our industrial artifacts and the artificial materials that make them—including plastic itself, which, he suggests, might very well leave traces similar to those of fossilized leaves and skeletons.

In a great essay I had the pleasure of including in the recent book Landscape Futures, Zalasiewicz writes: “Plastics, which are made of long chains of subunits, might behave like some of the long-chain organic molecules in fossil plant twigs and branches, or the collagen in the fossilized skeletons of some marine invertebrates. These can be wonderfully well preserved, albeit blackened and carbonized as hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen are driven off under the effect of subterranean heat and pressure.” Plastiglomerates could thus be seen as something like an intermediary stage in the long-term fossilization of plastic debris, a glimpse of the geology to come.

Ultimately, the idea that the stunning volcanic beaches of Hawaii are, in fact, more like an early version of tomorrow’s semi-plastic continents and tropical archipelagoes is both awesome and ironic: that an island chain known for its spectacular natural beauty would actually reveal the deeply artificial future of our planet in the form of these strange, easily missed objects washing around in the sand and coral of a gorgeous beach.

(Spotted via Rob Holmes. Vaguely related: War Sand).


[Images: (top to bottom) Projects by Asbjørn Søndergaard , Marta Malé-Alemany, Wes Mcgee, and Nat Chard, courtesy of Fabricate].

Fabricate is the place to be in London next month, when a group of “pioneers in design and making within architecture, construction, engineering, manufacturing, materials technology and computation” all descend on the Bartlett School of Architecture for a two-day exchange of techniques and ideas.

As the conference organizers explain, topics “will include: how digital fabrication technologies are enabling new creative and construction opportunities, the difficult gap that exists between digital modeling and its realization, material performance and manipulation, off-site and on-site construction, interdisciplinary education, economic and sustainable contexts.”

[Image: A project by Amanda Levete Architects, courtesy of Fabricate].

Speakers include Philip Beesley, Neri Oxman, Nat Chard, Mette Ramsgard Thomsen, Matthias Kohler, Mark Burry, and many more. Follow their Twitter feed for further updates, and check out the conference website for information on attending.

In this context, I’m reminded of the “giant 3D loom” that’s been invented to “weave” parts for a “supercar.” More specifically, it’s “a high-tech circular loom, guided by lasers, that can weave 3D objects.”

The “supercar” in question, made by Lexus, “is being used as a test bed for newly-designed parts made from carbon fibre and plastic. Compared to steel or aluminium, it makes the car stronger and lighter but producing these components is much more time-consuming: only one car is currently being assembled per day.”

According to Lexus, 3D weaving technology reduces the volume of materials used by 50 per cent and increases their strength. The automated process should also make it easier to produce a large volume of parts in the future. They hope to use this machine, and other carbon fibre manufacturing technologies, to create more efficient cars.

Or more efficient buildings.

Get one of these circular superlooms in London for the Fabricate conference; Lexus can offer some corporate sponsorship to make it worthwhile, and you can weave a new structure in its entirety each day, unleashing this hypnotic race of machine-spiders and their laser-assisted loom.

Also, check out this video:

New industrial shapes emerge from a slow cyclone of threaded metal. Future silks for future objects.

In any case, if you’re in London on 15-16 April, be sure to check out Fabricate, and, if you see the organizers, tell them you read about it on BLDGBLOG.

A Parking Lot to Last 16,000 Years

Perhaps proof that J.G. Ballard didn’t really die, he simply took an engineering job at MIT, scientists at that venerable Massachusetts institution have designed a new concrete that will last 16,000 years.

Called ultra-high-density concrete, or UHD, the material has so far proven rather strikingly resistant to deformation on the nano-scale – to what is commonly referred to as “creep.”

This has the (under other circumstances, quite alarming) effect that “a containment vessel for nuclear waste built to last 100 years with today’s concrete could last up to 16,000 years if made with an ultra-high-density (UHD) concrete.” (Emphasis added).

So how long until we start building multistory car parks with this stuff? 16,000 years from now, architecture bloggers camped out for the summer in rented apartments in Houston – the new Rome – get to visit the still-standing remains of abandoned airfields, dead colosseums, and triumphal arches that once held highway flyovers?

16,000 years’ worth of parking lots. 16,000 years’ worth of building foundations. Perhaps this simply means that we’re one step closer to mastering urban fossilization.

(Thanks, Mike R.!)

Glass is the ice of sand

As a continuation of the previous post, imagine a house whose plans are based upon a photomicrograph of glass. The house’s actual lay-out and external appearance are exact translations of the mineral structure and microtectonics of glass. The house itself, though, is also a glass house; that is, even as its layout and structure are based upon the mineral tectonics of glass itself, the house uses glass as its primary material.
Now imagine a Charles & Ray Eames-like film where we zoom-in at powers of 10 till we end up on the photomicrographic level, looking at the glass that the house is constructed from: the only problem is that it looks exactly like a full-scale photograph of the house. Have we zoomed all the way in, or did we zoom all the way back out?

MC Escher meets Mies van der Rohe, perhaps. Or Ouroborus as an architectural condition. And what happens if we keep zooming in?

Scalar interchangeability.