Mind & Matter



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Nanoscale architectural components. Photo by Dongchan Jang, Caltech.


Architects have been watching the nanotechnology revolution from the sidelines, marveling at the possibilities promised by innovations such as carbon nanotubes and synthetic nacre. It may therefore be surprising that nanotechnologists have simultaneously been studying architecture, and have used basic structural principles found in buildings to strengthen their laboratory research.

Recently, Caltech researchers developed superstrong, light, and ductile materials in a class known as “glassy metallic alloys,” based on adopting architectural assemblies at nanoscale. According to researcher Julia Greer, "We are entering a new era in materials science, where structural materials can be created not only by utilizing monolith structures, like ceramics and metals, but also by introducing 'architectural' features into them.”

These features include components that mimic W-flange shapes or brick-and-mortar assemblies comprised by nanoscale metallic glass plates. By incorporating architectural logic at this minute scale, Greer and her lab assistants hope to create engineering composites that exhibit superior mechanical properties over conventional materials like ceramics and metals. “Our findings," she says, "provide a powerful foundation for utilizing nanoscale components, which are capable of sustaining very high loads without exhibiting catastrophic failure, in bulk-scale structural applications specifically by incorporating architectural and microstructural control."


Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: mattthearchitect | Time: 1:31 AM Friday, February 19, 2010

    This is really about structural engineering. Steel shapes such as wide-flange sections, rectangular tubes, pipes and Tees were devised to resist gravity forces with the least amount of material. Steel is heavy. A solid rectangle, similar to a wood beam, made from steel would be very inefficient. Virtually the same strength is achieved by eliminating all but a top and bottom plate and a plate connecting the two in the middle to hold them apart, eliminating most of the weight. The resulting wide-flange or I-beam is the most efficient and least expensive use of a heavy material. This is what has inspired the nanotechnologists. Even at that scale, you still want to get the most out of the material. I don't see this research changing architecture much unless it results in ultra-light and strong materials to make structural members for buildings; effectively making the structure disappear. Fictional note: In the novel "Mercury" by Ben Bova, engineers build an elevator tower into space using bucky-balls built by nano-machines.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:42 PM Thursday, February 18, 2010

    wow. and to image that all along architects have been taught to think big. who knew?

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  • Posted by: CharlesRoig | Time: 12:18 PM Thursday, February 18, 2010

    I see the possibility of a whole new branch of architecture emerging here. Thinking spatially, architects have the opportunity to create physical concepts currently limited by the academy of mathematics.

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.