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+ Nanoscale technologies will change the way we design in the built environment, either by creating super strength and lightweight materials or by drastically increasing the conductivity of metals.

When you think about the construction industry, materials as small as one billionth of a metre probably don’t spring to mind. But I think it’s time to consider how nanoscale technologies, which manipulate molecules and atoms to fabricate materials with amazing new properties, can influence the built environment. How can they be used? What are the benefits? Are there any drawbacks or health implications?

In fact, you can already find examples of nanoparticles in the built environment; particularly in active surface technologies. Titanium dioxide is used regularly in self-cleaning coatings and products including the Pilkington ActivTM glass range, whereas nano-copper particles are starting to be used more regularly in anti-microbial coatings.

These types of nanotechnology are approaching maturity; at the high end of the technology readiness level scale. But what happens when we look at the other end of the scale? Here you’ll find graphene, which is struggling from being over-hyped and has a scale-up challenge, and carbon nanotubes, which have overcome the scale-up challenge but no one knows which properties to exploit or how they can be used most effectively.

I’m sure their time will come. In fact, I firmly believe these materials will change the way we design in the built environment, either by creating super strength and lightweight materials or by drastically increasing the conductivity of metals. In a world of depleting resources and increasing metal prices, using less material is attractive for cost and environmental reasons.

With carbon nanotubes, new interesting properties are found all the time – such as the ability to make them contract under heat rather than expand, or the ability to self-organise. What about a tuned piece of graphene oxide that is permeable to certain gases and a barrier to others?

This tuning ability could enable clever water purification and filtration systems to provide cheap clean water to developing countries. And the self-organising property could, in theory, be used to create a self-repairing adhesive or sealant.

Each of these properties can improve the way we design if we can find practical, cost-effective ways to apply the material. Once we do, I think these materials will create a step change in the way we design, not just in the built environment but across many engineering sectors.

I’ve spent two years looking at how these nanotechnologies, particularly nano-carbon, will alter our perceptions of what is normal, and the vast range of properties and possibilities excites me. Do you share my enthusiasm? Where do you see the benefits in these future technologies?