Right now, we think of buildings as unchangeable monoliths, hulks of steel and concrete that sit immutable in our cities. But buildings–and planes and cars–may soon be closer to living organisms, with the ability to morph their construction. One step toward that future may have just happened, with a new discovery that allows for a fine array of hollow veins and arteries to run through a building’s material without affecting its strength, which allows for fluids to be pumped through the material for things like cooling, heating, or even lighting.
A team of aerospace researchers at the University of Illinois has worked out how to build what is essentially a blood supply network into fiber-reinforced composites. This is the type of material that’s revolutionizing the airline industry and a number of others too, composed of fibers bound together by a resin. Quite apart from sounding amazing and strange, the upshot is even more impressive: By controlling the fluids you pump in and out of the new material you can more or less do “anything.” So says the professor in charge, anyway.
The breakthrough has been to build sacrificial fibers into the structure of a composite, and then force them to vaporize under heating, leaving tiny voids behind. Why? Because a vascular system–like the one thrumming with blood inside your skin or the one moving sap in a tree–is a very efficient way of delivering energy to a material (in your case, it’s delivering oxygen and moving heat through your muscles, bones, and organs).
The most obvious use for an artificial material with a vascular structure like this is to develop self-cooling or -heating structures for vehicles or perhaps even buildings: A wall of your car that’s threaded with veins full of cooling fluid could efficiently cool the interior down from sunlight heating, without needing a massively energy-hungry air-conditioning unit inside the vehicle. The same trick would work for airliners–and indeed Concorde used a limited form of the design, pumping fuel around the fuselage to act as a temperature controller for the passengers inside.
But there are a host of other amazing effects that you can achieve: By pumping self-luminescing chemicals into the veins, you could make a material that glowed at will, for all sorts of lighting purposes. There’s also the possibility of changing physical properties of the
material itself, like its stiffness or density, by controlling fluid
pressure in its veins, which in the far-flung future could allow for
clever effects like active vibration damping. And by varying the electromagnetic properties of a conductive liquid you’re pumping through it, you could vary how the material reacts to radiowaves–which could enable a particularly clever form of stealth technology.