Architect Ponders Molten Lava as a Building Material

FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2022

Harnessing molten lava to construct buildings might seem like an impossible task, but one Icelandic architecture firm has been pondering the idea since 2018.

According to reports, Studio Arnhildur Pálmadóttir (SAP) has been researching how molten lava could be harnessed from Iceland’s myriad volcanoes to use as building materials in a project they call “Lavaforming.”

The idea, which was recently presented by architect Arnhildur Pálmadóttir at an exhibit in Reykjavík, arrives at a time where all sectors of the building industry are looking to environmentally friendly materials for construction—whether they are recycled, or simply low or free in carbon.

In a report by Architecture 2030, researchers found that construction and building materials are responsible for 11% of annual global CO2 emissions. As a result, many architects and builders are making the switch to materials with a lower carbon footprint or that are locally sourced, such as using bamboo in China or agave waste in Mexico.

For Pálmadóttir, lava felt like an obvious choice, given Iceland’s numerous stone and lava fields. To harness the molten lava, Pálmadóttir shared three ideas: digging, drilling and 3D-printing.

For the first idea, the architect explains that trenches would have to be dug before a volcano erupts so that afterwards, slow-flowing lava could move into the framework. After the lava has dried, teams could dig out the soil from around the trenches, which would have left wall-like structures.

Not only would the method provide another modular-like construction option, but it could also be used to direct lava from communities and protect critical infrastructure. The only issue is that architects would have to rely on prediction models and weather forecasts still being developed specifically for volcanoes.

Should this idea come to fruition, Pálmadóttir believes that the practice could be applied to 1,500 other active volcanos across the globe.

If there are no expected eruptions, another proposal is drilling down into the molten lava to harness geothermal energy which could be used to generate electricity. To that extent, the third idea, 3D printing, could be carried out using similar equipment.

According to Pálmadóttir, if architects could drill far enough to harness geothermal energy, they should then also be able to drill farther into pockets of magma, where the material could be harnessed and molded into bricks or turned into a 3D printing material. In another current ongoing study, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are already printing with molten glass.

“We think it’s a good idea, but we realize it might not happen in our lifetime,” Arnar Skarphéðinsson, an architect at SAP, told reporters.

Volcanic-Inspired Building Materials

Earlier this year, a non-toxic, fire extinguishing coating was developed by researchers from the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, Australia. Inspired by one of the Earth’s hottest substances, molten lava, the hybrid coating aims to save buildings from being completely engulfed in flames. The research efforts for the development were led by USQ chemical engineer and Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Professor Pingan Song.

“Melton lava is like a viscous flowing liquid but non-flammable,” Professor Song explained at the time. “Once cooled, it solidifies to become a ceramic layer that does not support fire.”

In making this observation about the natural substance, Song sought out to create a coating that could melt and then gradually form a flowing but non-combustible ceramic layer when exposed to extreme heat. This ceramic layer would then be able to better protect the underlying substrates, similar to a fire shield.

If these types of structures and select building materials were sprayed with a coating like his team developed, or thermal insulation foams, Song suggests that many of these types of tragedies could be prevented. However, most fire retardants in the market today are not effective enough, costly and sometimes are difficult to produce, USQ reports.

In an effort to mitigate the current shortcomings in the fire retardant coatings, Song and his team worked on a solution that would offer better protection and could even be used in additional application settings, such as on wooden furniture, mining, tunnels and various transportations.

While the coating is scheduled for additional testing and refinement before it can be commercialized, Song predicts that the coating could be available within the next three years.

In October, researchers from MIT and the University of Utah have conducted research on a 2,050-year-old Roman tomb for insight into concrete resilience. For their study, researchers looked at the tomb of first-century noblewoman Caecilia Metella.

Built using volcanic aggregate, the large cylindrical structure was of interest to lead co-authors of the study, Admir Masic, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and Marie Jackson, research associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, for its unusual chemical interactions with rain and groundwater over the course of two millennia.

Due to these design choices, the concrete quality of the tomb may actually exceed its male contemporaries’ monuments.

A landmark on the Via Appia Antica, the tomb of Caecilia Metella consists of a rotunda-shaped tower on a square base, measuring roughly 70 feet tall and 100 feet in diameter. The tomb was constructed in about 30 BCE, when the Roman Republic was transforming into the Roman Empire, using a mixture of coarse brick or volcanic rock aggregate bound with mortar made with lime and volcanic tephra (porous fragments of glass and crystals from explosive eruptions).

The crystals, formed from the potassium-rich mineral leucite, dissolved over time, causing the structure to remodel and reorganize the interface between volcanic aggregates and the cementitious binding matrix, improving the cohesion of the concrete.

Looking at the microstructure of the concrete, researchers discovered that the concrete mixture used for the tomb was similar to the mortar used in the Markets of Trajan 120 years later. The glue of the Markets of Trajan mortar consists of a building block called the C-A-S-H binding phase (calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate), along with crystals of a mineral called strätlingite.

What made the tomb’s concrete stronger, however, was the leucite that managed to strengthen the structure over centuries of rainwater and groundwater percolating through the tomb’s walls, reconfigured the C-A-S-H binding phase.

Stefano Roascio, the archaeologist in charge of the tomb, reported that the study has a great deal of relevance to understanding other ancient and historic concrete structures that use Pozzolane Rosse aggregate.

The research has since been published in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

And, in 2018, MIT engineers working in conjunction with scientists from Kuwait, found that concrete made with pulverized volcanic rocks reduces the energy that goes into producing concrete, thus lessening overall pollution.

According to the team’s calculations, 16% less energy is required to construct a pilot neighborhood with 26 concrete buildings made with 50% volcanic ash, in comparison with the same structures being made entirely of Portland cement.

As part of the research, the team investigated how much energy it would take to make concrete from a mixture of cement and volcanic ash, rather than just cement alone. Researchers consulted several databases in order to calculate the embodied energy tied to various industrial processes.

What they found was that replacing 50% of traditional cement with volcanic ash with an average particle size of 17 micrometers could bring down concrete’s embodied energy by 16%. This compromised the strength of the concrete, however, and as a result they ground down the particles to 6 micrometers.

Focusing on a neighborhood in Kuwait with 13 residential and 13 commercial buildings made from Portland cement, the team calculated the neighborhood’s existing embodied energy and then calculated the change in embodied energy if the buildings had been constructed with the augmented concrete. As with prior findings, the team found that less energy would have been consumed if the alternate concrete mixture had been used.

The research was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, and was funded in part by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences.


Tagged categories: 3D printing; 3D Printing; Architects; Architecture; Asia Pacific; Building materials; Carbon footprint; Color + Design; Construction; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America; Program/Project Management; Projects - Commercial; Z-Continents

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