Metabolic materials are a technology that acts as a chemical interface or language through which artificial structures such as, architecture, can connect with natural systems. The characteristic of metabolic materials is that they possess the living property of metabolism, which is a set of chemical interactions that transform one group of substances into another with the absorption or production of energy. This transfer of energy through chemical exchange directly couples the environment to the living technology and embeds it within an ecosystem. Researchers from the University of Greenwich are using ethical synthetic biology to create “living” materials that could be used to clad buildings and absorb the CO2 from the air. In collaboration with an architectural practice and a building materials’ manufacturer, the idea is to use protocells – bubbles of oil in an aqueous fluid sensitive to light or different chemicals – to fix carbon from the atmosphere or to create a coral-like skin, which could protect buildings. Dr Rachel Armstrong, Teaching Fellow at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, proposes that recycling carbon dioxide into carbon-containing solids deposits could be used to stabilize the city’s foundations by growing an artificial limestone reef beneath it. Protocells can be ‘programmed’ chemically to achieve particular outcomes. For example, is possible to create a ‘carbonate’ shell from insoluble carbonate crystals that are produced by protocells when they come in contact with dissolved carbon dioxide. Protocells can therefore produce a limestone like substance and artificially extend the development of this material (created by the accretion of the skeletons of tiny marine organisms), which can continue to grow, self-repair and even respond to changes in the environment.
Protocells made from oil droplets in water allow soluble chemicals to be exchanged between the drops and their surrounding
Corals produce limestone around themselves as an exoskeleton thus formatting underwater structures called coral reefs.