HORIZONS

Buildings can take inspiration from nature to become efficient — and beautiful

Plus: NASA turns its attention to dust.

Sanford/Agliolo/Corbis/Getty Images

Have you ever thought your house might be alive? I’m not talking in the haunted, poltergeist way. I’m talking living, like in a biological organism kind of way. Think of it another way: Buildings, like bodies, have an internal structure and a protective outer layer.

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada take this idea a step further with their latest innovation: A design for “active” building walls that directly takes inspiration from marine biology.

What’s new — In a study published in Nature Communications, the researchers outline their design for “active building facades,” taking their cues from creatures like krill which rapidly change their pigmentation to adapt to changing levels of sunlight and heat. Their building material would ostensibly do the same — when light and heat conditions changed over the course of a day, or from winter to summer, say, a pigment would spread across the otherwise transparent building surface to create an optimal amount of shade. The authors call this “locally-adjustable shading and interior solar exposure,” in the study.

Imagine a more colorful, and cooler, cityscape!Liyao Xie/Moment/Getty Images

Why it matters — You might be thinking: This sounds a lot like my blinds. You are not wrong, Raphael Kay explains in an accompanying release. Kay is a student at the University of Toronto and an author on the new study.

“Imagine opening your blinds when you need more daylight or solar heat, and closing them when you need less,” he explains. “That does save energy, but it’s pretty crude.”

Kay points out that even if you have a responsive, motor-controlled blinds system, it is still never ideal.

“Nearly all of these systems are expensive, rely on complicated manufacturing procedures, or can only switch between a limited range of opacities — for example, from very dark to only somewhat dark,” he points out.

Kay and his team’s innovation could offer a way to fine-tune shading to just a single part of a window pane, blocking out the afternoon glare, for example, but still leaving enough light for your brain to still know its daytime. The technology would also make buildings more efficient in terms of electricity use for lighting and heating.

One fun thing to note, too, is that the color of the fluid can be whatever you want it to be — imagine skyscrapers in all different jewel tones rather than the standard dark gray. Or art projected on the walls of the downtown buildings. We’d like to live in that city!

Read the full study.

On the horizon: NASA turns its attention to dust

Dust might not be a very sexy topic of study, but it is vitally important for the adaptation to our climate reality and any efforts to prevent further damage. In fact, we don’t actually know if dust in the upper atmosphere is a good thing or a bad thing when it comes to the warming planet. Is it cooling our planet down? Is it making matter worse?

NASA is sending a new mission to find out. EMIT, or the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, will peer from its new 248-mile-high perch above the planet to solve the mystery of “mineral aerosols.”

This data will help a research team determine if dust is a good or bad agent when it comes to climate change. Ultimately, the answers could help us further mitigate global warming. But it could also help explain some of the extreme weather and other phenomena happening now on Earth.

Like dust bowls. Learn more about the mission here and hear directly from the scientists what they hope to discover.

Hard to miss.John Greim/LightRocket/Getty Images

Here’s what else we’re reading...

  • If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that the virus is readily adaptable. So why aren’t vaccines keeping up with the pace of change? Emily Mullen at WIRED digs in.
  • Love the idea of an EV but need something with a little more oomph? Better performance EVs may be coming, Emma Roth at The Verge reports.
  • Europe and the UK are undergoing a heat wave — but many people don’t have air-conditioning. Here’s the New York Times on why that is the case for Britain.
  • The r/JamesWebb subreddit is a fine place to kill five minutes — Redditors are taking raw data from the telescope and processing the images themselves. Some of the images are stunning.
  • Artist and sculptor Claes Oldenburg has died. Read The Guardian’s shout out to the innovative pop art maverick — if you’ve ever been to Philadelphia, you might have spotted his Clothespin sculpture...

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