Biomimicry innovations set to transform urban construction
Image credit: Metavoxel
Two finalists in the 2022 Ray of Hope Prize have turned to nature for innovative ways to transform the sector and improve the environmental impact of urban construction, ultimately making our cities more sustainable.
The Ray of Hope Prize from the US Biomimicry Institute is an annual programme that supports the top nature-inspired start-ups whose innovations have the potential to solve critical environmental and social issues. Among the 2022 finalists are two organisations with innovations that can transform urban construction, Mycocyle and Metavoxel, which between them have addressed the issue of waste management and materials consumption.
For companies working in biomimicry, the Ray of Hope Prize is one of the most important.
Founder and CEO of Mycocycle, Joanne Rodriguez, says: “The Biomimicry Institute is fundamentally aligned with our mission. When we consider that there is no waste in nature and that we are using nature to solve man-made problems, there is no other place globally that can clearly align with our north star and connect us with others who are focused on building nature-based solutions for industrial problems.”
This is echoed by Benjamin Jennet, CEO and founder of Metavoxel: “Being a finalist in Ray of Hope is a significant accomplishment for multiple reasons. It is a great opportunity to refine our narrative as we look to work with companies whose values align with ours. The network and community are full of subject matter experts, whose passion for technology inspired by nature matches or exceeds ours, which provides constant support and inspiration. And it gives us a platform for us to communicate our technology and values to the world as we enter the market space.”
Metavoxel has invented new composite building materials that have taken inspiration from the cellular construction of materials such as bone, wood and sea sponge. These programmable, cellular materials are based on a discrete assembly of modular, building-block parts. “Our innovation came about in an effort to solve a problem related to aerostructure manufacturing, where a high stiffness-to-weight ratio is paramount. This led to insights regarding a scalable manufacturing process for producing cellular materials with novel properties,” says Jennet.
The materials that Metavoxel has created differ from traditional building materials in that the technology can do more with less. “By leveraging the benefits of cellular architecture, we can address a range of performance regimes with significantly less material, while offering improved performance through application-specific tunability," Jennet explains.
What this means for the construction industry is that it can cut the cost of building projects and improve structural efficiency. Costs are cut as the modular nature of Metavoxel products means projects can be built more quickly using fewer materials. Structural efficiency is improved as compared to a solid building material, Metavoxel’s cellular innovations are around 98 per cent air, but maintain a high level of structural performance.
“This is accomplished through the design of the cellular geometry, which requires high connectivity to ensure external loads are resolved through axial tension and compression of beam elements,” says Jennet. “In our materials, the 3D network of beams is sufficiently triangulated to offer these benefits, and in the case of alternative cell geometries, we can achieve a range of other properties at similarly low densities.”
Metavoxel is currently developing a consumer product that has significantly improved environmental performance compared to its traditionally constructed counterpart – a 63 per cent reduction in weight and a 90 per cent reduction in CO2e. These savings are expected to be similar in their building products, though it will vary based on construction type (i.e., residential vs. commercial) and component (i.e., foundation vs. framing).
Due to testing and certification requirements, the building products aren’t expected to be market-ready for at least 18 months. But when they are, at commercial-scale production levels, Metavoxel will be able to produce approximately one cubic metre, which translates to roughly a 96x96in wall with 6in thickness, in 30 minutes, which is 50 per cent faster than the production of traditional wall-building materials.
Mycocycle works with fungi to break down complex construction waste materials. Rodriguez worked in the construction products industry for 30 years and in that time witnessed the growing issue of the unsustainable disposal of waste materials.
“Six-hundred-and-sixty million tonnes of construction waste enters the waste-management system annually in the US alone – this is twice the amount of municipal solid waste,” she says. “Having been in the construction materials manufacturing space for decades, I understood the complications as well as the desire that building owners had with trying to dispose of these waste streams.”
Armed with that knowledge, in 2018 Rodriguez started Mycocycle to provide a solution to processing toxic construction waste. Taking inspiration from fungi, which are nature's recyclers as well as builders, Mycocycle not only processes the waste but also recycles it into materials that can be used in new products.
“Fungi form long networks underground with their root structures that work to cycle nutrients and heavy carbon alike into beneficial properties for soil and the ecosystems they serve. Those root structures, the mycelium, are the foundation of our technology,” Rodriguez explains. “They are able to break down heavy lignins and woody biomass while dispatching enzymes that convert heavy hydrocarbons, like those found in petroleum-based materials. Understanding that these activities happen in nature without anthropogenic interventions, it made sense to apply them to materials with similar composition: building materials.”
Mycocycle has had three studies run by manufacturers that show the process to be carbon neutral to carbon negative as a result of cycling waste out of their supply chain. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, for every ton of waste that is diverted from landfill almost three metric tonnes of CO2e are avoided.
“To date, we have avoided 25,000lb of CO2e just in waste diversion,” Rodriguez explains. “There are also positive carbon impacts from material development, but that depends specifically on what is being replaced for manufacturers. We anticipate avoiding one gigaton of CO2e by 2030 because of our process in total circularity.”
Although everything is in very early stages, the company is discussing projects with global manufacturers of insulation and acoustic products, foams and adhesives, wallboard, and roofing.
The winners of the 2022 Ray of Hope Prize were announced in November 2022, and although neither company won, with innovations such as these expected to be market ready by 2025, the potential for construction to become more sustainable is improving.
How does Mycocycle work?
It’s a three-stage process that currently takes between four and six weeks to complete:
Step 1: the fungal inoculum (the Mycocycle “treatment”) is blended with a waste material (gypsum, rubber, asphalt, foam, etc.) and placed into incubation containers.
Step 2: Incubation occurs over two to four weeks in ambient conditions that control airflow and temperature on site, for example in a warehouse or intermodal container.
Step 3: Mycocomposite materials are harvested and go into a post-finishing process where mycelial growth is stopped, and the composite becomes inert. Post-finishing can mean materials become new raw materials for use in new products. They are biobased filler replacements meaning new bulking materials do not have to be harvested but can be utilised from waste+fungi compositions.
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