Silicones: Enabling the construction revolution

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates - View of Burj Khalifa, the highest building in the world. [iStock]

Have you ever wondered how tall buildings withstand extreme conditions in the heights? Amidst howling winds and the blazing sun, the dazzling 828-meter tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the 632-meter tall Shanghai Tower snake their spires up towards infinity. Their existence has only been made possible in very recent years, thanks to impressive advances in modern technology, writes Pierre Germain.

Dr. Pierre Germain is CES secretary general.

Beyond height, the construction sector has made several extraordinary advances in recent years. Buildings emit less greenhouse gases and have become more energy efficient. Their construction uses less resources, and they last longer, requiring less repairs. Great strides have been made in earthquake, wind and temperature resistance, making buildings today safer than ever.

According to the European Commission, buildings make up 40% of the energy use in Europe. The sector is therefore crucial to achieving the goals set out in the Paris agreement, the 2030 climate and energy framework and the circular economy action plan. At the same time, the construction sector is vital for the European economy – it provides 18 million direct jobs and contributes to more than 5% of the EU GDP. The solution to the problem is therefore not to construct less, but to construct better.

How were those heights and energy savings achieved, and how will construction continue to improve to meet the needs of tomorrow? Advancements in the fields of engineering and architecture are of course fundamental, but I would like to highlight also the role of material science, silicones in particular.

Silicones were first used in construction more than 50 years ago, and are still holding many of those same buildings together today. This inventive chemistry set revolutionised construction with its multitude of positive attributes. And silicone innovation did not stop there – every year the silicones industry continues to invest around 4% of earnings in R&D. Allow me to point out some core achievements in the construction sector to date.

Structural glazing using silicones protects and maintains the long-term quality and appearance of a building façade. These facades depend on silicone sealants and glazing to insulate and protect glass panels in buildings from UV rays. In tall buildings, silicone sealants reinforce the attachment of the glass to the frame, and their flexibility and temperature resistance help those impressive structures stay in place.

In addition to enabling construction under extreme conditions, silicones contribute to the circular economy by reducing the amount of materials used in construction (essentially eliminating the use of mechanical fasteners, among others), prolonging the lifespan of buildings and facilitating energy efficiency. Insulated window glazing using silicone sealants saves nearly 30 times more greenhouse gas than was emitted when they were made. The use of silicone additives and coatings can also reduce water ingress by up to 80%. Considering that water intake is the predominant reason for biodegradation of buildings, this is no mean feat.

Silicones also help buildings become “net-zero” emitters, through building-integrated photovoltaic materials that replace other materials to provide a renewable energy source where a regular roof, skylight, or façade would have been.

Silicone coatings reduce degradation and help lengthen the operational lifetime of buildings and façades, avoiding costs arising from water or damp damage. In old buildings and landmarks, such as the statues on Easter Island and the Statue of Liberty in New York, silicones help reinforce the structures without compromising the integrity of the original materials. Silicones surfactants on polyurethane panels improve insulation and energy efficiency without compromising surface quality. The versatility of silicones allows for design flexibility, which has brought the world the “Gherkin” and the “Shard” in London, “Gardens by the Bay” in Singapore, BMW Welt in Munich and many others.

Who knows what additional architectural and engineering innovations in building design silicones will enable in the future? A look in the crystal ball shows potential for dynamic glass, next generation lighting and completely transparent bonding materials.

The next time you crane your neck to look up at a tall structure, admire a nearby UNESCO heritage building, or drink a cup of tea in your well-insulated house, take a moment to think about the advanced technologies that made it possible.

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