When we think of chemistry, we generally picture things like bubbling test tubes, lab coats and safety goggles.
While those are all part of this branch of science, chemistry gets applied to more than just lab-based experiments. Without it, we wouldn't have many of the building materials we use every single day — at least, not in their current incarnations.
Here are 10 ways that chemistry in architecture makes building materials stronger.
We've been using wood to build homes and other structures for centuries. It's one of the oldest building materials known to man, but it's also prone to things like warping when exposed to water, as well as rot. It's also a favourite snack for everything from termites to carpenter ants. Still, it's one of the most sustainable building materials on the planet, and chemistry means we can make the most out of something as simple as a plank of wood.
Pairing wood products with techniques like cross lamination — which uses chemistry in the form of various wood glues — serves to make this sustainable material stronger and longer-lasting. The inherent beauty of a wood-panelled home or business is retained.
Wood isn't just useful for building. It is also a fantastic fuel source, which means things built from wood are at risk for burning down. Instead of just leaving it to fate or the skills of your local fire department, chemistry in architecture is working to help make wood more fire-resistant when it's used in construction.
Mass timber is one example. A five-ply cross-laminated piece of wood was subjected to temperatures higher than 1,800 F for more than three hours. It chars on the outside but doesn't burn all the way through, making it safer to use in construction applications.
We see polyethene in everything from water bottles to plastic blister packaging, but those aren't its only potential applications. By using a cross-lined pattern when manufacturing this particular plastic, chemists can alter the temperature and impact resistance of the plastic. This opens up a whole host of potential applications.
One use of this unique new piping is being showcased in U.S. Bank Stadium, the home of the Minnesota Vikings. The new roof is covered with cross-linked polyethene piping. If it's a snowy day, stadium crews can run hot water through those pipes to keep snow from building up on the roof, melting it before it has a chance to accumulate.
For most people, the word epoxy conjures images of the two-part glue syringes that you probably have collecting dust in your garage. Thanks to advances in chemistry, epoxy is useful for more than just glue. Two-part epoxies — made up of a polyamine hardener and an epoxide resin — also have uses as floor coverings and protectants.
Instead of relying on a concrete coating that will need to be replaced every couple of years, a well-installed epoxy floor can last you for decades. Roller-applied epoxy containing 100% solids leaves a wet-film thickness (WFT) of approximately 10 millimetres. When it cures, the thickness stays at 10 mm. It's also chemically resistant, making it ideal for installation anywhere that might experience a chemical spill.
Traditionally, concrete is heavy. It's made up of water, cement powder and some form of aggregate, such as rocks or sand. It's an effective building material, but it's often difficult to work with as you start getting further up from the ground. Who says concrete has to be heavy? Why not take a look at something that we probably take for granted — polystyrene beads?
You've probably seen polystyrene beads in beanbag chairs or as packing peanuts. Chemists discovered if they mix these beads with dry cement, the resulting concrete is thinner and lighter, but still drys just as strong. That makes it easier to pump to high floors and reduces the overall weight of the building.
Nanotechnology might sound like something out of a science-fiction movie, but it's starting to make its way into chemistry in architecture, as well as other fields like medicine and technology. Since we can't currently manufacture microscopic robots, nanotech rests securely in the realm of chemistry. Chemists are engineering very small materials to carry out specific tasks.
One of the most unique materials that has a variety of potential construction applications is carbon nanotubes. One architectural company is already working on a way to use carbon nanotubes grown by chemists to create windows or doors that can move on their own without motors or hydraulic arms.
It might look gorgeous while it's in one piece, but there's nothing more annoying or dangerous than a broken plate-glass window. Even multilayer windows break into massive shards that are sharp enough to do some serious damage. Chemists are working with silicone as a tool to prevent these breaks, or at least make things safer if one of these windows is damaged.
By bonding silicone to the surface of the glass in a process called glazing, chemists can assist glaziers by helping them make larger windows that are safer and stronger than those of the past. The silicone bonding also causes the glass to be more UV-resistant and less likely to break when subjected to wind or thermal changes.
Vinyl, whether you're using it as panels on the exterior of your home, tiles on your floor or a frame for your furniture, is one material that wouldn't exist without chemistry. It's made up of chlorine and ethylene.
Vinyl has nearly endless numbers of potential applications. Depending on the exact chemical makeup, it can be strong, weak, rigid, flexible or anything in between. All that wouldn't be possible without chemistry.
As the threat of climate change becomes more apparent, we've shifted our focus in architecture and construction toward creating energy-efficient buildings. Many of the advances we've made come from the minds of chemists that are tweaking and fine-tuning the chemicals used in things like roof coatings.
Whether you're in a home or a business, the roof absorbs most of the heat and UV radiation coming from the sun. Some companies have started investing in roof coatings that reflect the sun's heat away from the building's roof. This, in turn, makes the entire structure more energy efficient by reducing the amount of power it takes to heat or cool the space.
Many of our traditional building materials — like steel and concrete — are heavy. Instead of relying strictly on them, architectural chemists have started working on ways to complete the same tasks with fewer materials. The trick is that they have to accomplish this without compromising the structural integrity of the project.
Polyurethane, for example, can be used in the place of concrete between steel plates. Engineers in Edmonton, Canada, showcased this when they refurbished the Dawon Bridge. It added more strength and kept the plates rigid at a fraction of the weight. Plus, polyurethane dries and hardens in less time than it takes concrete to do the same, accelerating construction projects and reducing costs.
The next time you peer through a plate glass window or lift a concrete slab that feels a lot lighter than it should, thank a chemist. We wouldn't be where we are today without them.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer by day & an amateur astronomer by night (at least when the weather cooperates). Megan is the editor of Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to making science understandable to those without a science degree. She also regularly contributes to Smart Data Collective, Real Clear Science, and Industry Today. Subscribe to Schooled By Science for the latest news.