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Unlocking the Future of Infrastructure

What is the compelling question or challenge?

At the intersection of automated construction and artificial intelligence, can innovative, recyclable and adaptable materials provide symbiotic infrastructure in regards to its local environment?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Population growth in urban settings coupled with inequitable housing costs and resource scarcity presents a major challenge for the continuity of cities. By 2050 it is predicted that 66% of the global population will habitate in urban areas with 1 billion people living in informal housing by 2020 due to unaffordable housing costs. Thus, there is a critical need to innovate automated construction systems and next-generation materials capable of building large-scale urban infrastructure to ensure the sustainable development of terrestrial (and extra-terrestrial) cities.

Critical investment in multiple science and technology fields is needed to develop innovative next-generation materials with full-scale recyclability, which are able to respond to localized environmental aggressors, meet globalized low-carbon demands, and interface with intelligent robotic construction.

Currently, automated construction systems (i.e. digital fabrication) have gained popularity within the broader industrial and scientific communities, and promise to revolutionize construction with freeform architecture, reduced material waste, and low construction costs. While automated construction systems are a burgeoning technology, these strategies currently employ traditional building materials, such as ordinary Portland cement. The material is extruded in layers resulting in the progressive construction of structural members (e.g. load-bearing walls). Recently, a layered extrusion variant, contour crafting, has been proposed for extra-terrestrial digital fabrication. As a consequence, researchers are currently exploring the scientific knowledge-base of ordinary Portland cement and, to a lesser extent, alternative cements, to enable complete concrete digital fabrication. Recent research has revealed extrusion velocity and yield stress relationships crucial to avoid “cold joints”, failure points between deposited layers. Moreover, current knowledge of robotics and chemical modifiers has developed novel digital fabrication methods (i.e. Smart Dynamic Casting) capable of incorporating reinforcement and avoiding cold joints. However, the current customary use of ordinary Portland cement coupled with its low-durability performance pose a global paradigm that must be broken if automated construction is to keep its promise of urban sustainable development.

The sustainable development of cities requires a new paradigm where the diversification of construction materials results in the selection of appropriate high-performance materials for different infrastructure. Such innovation and utilization of next-generation materials can offer unique opportunities to surpass localized infrastructure durability challenges, reduce global CO2 emissions, and revolutionize the construction assembly processes via intelligent mechatronics.

Fundamental research questions:

  • Given that ordinary Portland cement accounts for ~6% of CO2 emissions, what next-generation materials are to be developed and commercialized to lower embodied and operational energy concerns?
  • Given the need to fully automate construction systems, can self-sensing, self-localized, and self-powered robots operate hazardous construction sites?
  • Given the need to prevent resource scarcity, can fundamental science on adaptable materials permit full recyclability of next-generation infrastructure materials via applied triggers?
  • Given future advancements in mechatronics and infrastructure materials, can mechatronics and smart robotics transform material systems into digital fabrication processes?
  • Given the need to develop fully recyclable, durable, and sustainable materials, can the next-frontier infrastructure materials lie at the intersectionality of soft organic and hard inorganic materials?
  • Given the need to colonize next space frontiers, can innovative materials respond to changing and extreme environmental conditions to produce space human settlements? What role do chemical modifiers play to create needed material properties?
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