EU backs Microlight3D’s bid to erect “revolutionary” self-cooling buildings

Microscale 3D printer manufacturer Microlight3D has received EU backing to develop a new form of concrete that could enable the construction of ‘self-cooling’ buildings. 

Awarded as part of the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) program, the funding will be used to design a microstructured building material with unique temperature-regulating properties. Set to be developed alongside five European universities, Microlight3D says that its novel cement has the potential to “revolutionize the construction industry,” by lowering the impact of urban metropolises on the environment.

“By using microstructured concrete, buildings will be able to cool down naturally and thereby reduce the ‘urban heat islands’ that build up in cities during summer heatwaves,” said Denis Barbier, CEO of Microlight3D. “This structural building material, which can cool down by itself, will also reduce the energy consumption used for air conditioning and benefit the climate by lowering CO2 emissions.”

 Denis Barbier and Philippe Paliard present the 1st micro-structured concrete sample.
Denis Barbier and Philippe Paliard present the first micro-structured concrete sample. Photo via Microlight3D.

Microlight3D’s ‘2PP’ technology 

Based in French city of Grenoble, Microlight3D is a manufacturer of high-res, micro-scale 2D and 3D printers with micro-optics, robotics and electronics applications. The firm’s systems are based on its proprietary two-photon polymerization (2PP) technology, which it spent 15 years developing at Grenoble Alpes University (UGA), and has now brought to market.

In effect, the company’s 2PP approach involves the use of sub-nanosecond laser pulses to create ultra-narrow voxels, which serve as a basis for 3D printing highly-detailed and complex nanostructures. Since launching its 2PP-enabled Altraspin and µFAB-3D machines, Microlight3D has increasingly sought to build on the unique capabilities of its microsale technology, as well as its wider applications. 

Back in 2019, the company acquired Smart Force Technologies (SFT) in a move that was touted at the time, as enabling the integration of micro-scale 2D printing capabilities into its microfluidic 3D printers. In the past, the firm has also received €747,000 from EuroNanoMed to fund the R&D of its systems for wound-healing regenerative medicine applications. 

Now, as part of the wider EU-backed Horizon 2020 program, Microlight3D has been tasked with applying its technology within the construction sector, to enable the production of a novel microstructured concrete, that it says could “transform the capacity of buildings to cool down naturally.” 

The Microlight3D Altraspin 3D printer. Image via Microlight3D
Microlight3D launched its Altraspin 3D printer (pictured) in January 2019. Image via Microlight3D

Combating ‘urban heat islands’

In some of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, such as London and New York, the combined heat energy produced by the people and transportation passing through, results in what’s referred to as an Urban Heat Island or ‘UBI.’ Thanks to the closely-packed buildings in these cities, as well as the ‘waste heat’ produced by the energy burned there, they’ve effectively turned into hot and sweaty places to live. 

Research from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that people living in UBI-affected regions also suffer from worse water and air quality than those in rural areas, and that sprawling cityscapes are contributing to global warming and a rise in heat waves, necessitating the development of a new approach to building construction. 

In an attempt to combat the impact of UBIs, the ‘MIRACLE’ research consortium, composed of Technische Universitat Darmstadt, Universidad Publica de Navarra, Fundacion Tecnalia Research & Innovation, KU Leuven and Politecnico di Torino, have tasked Microlight3D with helping to 3D print high-res microstructures for concrete molding applications. 

Through the project, Microlight3D aims to 3D print concrete molds with microtopography variations at their surface, which allow for the insertion of steel microfibers. In theory, the resulting photonic meta-material could then be capable of turning solar heat into infrared rays that can be self-sufficiently expelled by buildings, without using any extra energy. 

“Microlight3D is proud to participate in a project aimed at creating cities that are more pleasant to live in and more respectful of the environment,” concluded Philippe Paliard, Co-founder and Head of Users & Applications at Microlight3D. “It is exciting to see that our two-photon polymerization technology can offer solutions to, and have a real impact on, combating environmental issues.”

Eco-friendly concrete alternatives 

With 3D printing continuing to gather momentum in the construction sector, much research is also being conducted into new materials that yield infrastructure with enhanced properties. At UC Berkeley, researchers have developed a means of reinforcing concrete structures with 3D printed polymer octet lattices

Elsewhere, scientists at the Swinburne University of Technology and Hebei University of Technology have turned demolition waste into a sustainable new 3D printing material. Based on a combination of concrete aggregate, ceramsite particles and desert sand, the team’s novel formulation is said to yield structures with a skeletal-like level of self-support. 

Rather than formulating an entirely new concrete, BigRep and Forward AM have taken a different approach to supporting the construction sector with their Concrete Formwork filament. Launched in May 2021, the material is designed to enable the creation of precast concrete supports, while providing cost and lead time savings to its adopters. 

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Featured image shows Denis Barbier and Philippe Paliard presenting their first micro-structured concrete sample. Photo via Microlight3D.