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Molecular 'glue' could hold the key to building towering timber skyscrapers, research finds

Molecules 10,000 times narrower than the width of a human hair could hold the key to building towering wooden skyscrapers in the future, new research has found.

A father and son team at the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge in England have unlocked the mystery of how key sugars in cells bind to form strong, indigestible materials – a finding they believe could lead to the creation of super-strong skyscraper-supporting ’glue.’

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, explains how thick, rod-like cellulose and long, winding xylan – the Earth’s two most common large molecules – stick together to form strong plant walls despite being fundamentally different.

“We knew the answer must be elegant and simple,” said Professor Paul Dupree from the department of biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, who led the research. “And in fact, it was. What we found was that cellulose induces xylan to untwist itself and straighten out, allowing it to attach itself to the cellulose molecule. It then acts as a kind of ‘glue’ that can protect cellulose or bind the molecules together, making very strong structures.”

This finding arrived following careful study of Arabidopsis, a newly-discovered plant related to cabbage and mustard, which revealed how the sugars and molecules that connect to xylan are altered when cellulose is also present, allowing binding to occur. Professor Ray Dupree – Paul Dupree’s father – studied other plants at a nanoscale using special imaging technology, which led to the discovery that the phenomenon appears to occur in all plants – and so must have evolved in ancient times.

Understanding how cellulose and xylan fit together could have a dramatic effect on industries as diverse as biofuels, paper production and agriculture. Paul Dupree said it is particularly relevant for the architecture and engineering industries, as it may enable the creation of much stronger materials.

Dupree is involved in the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge, which is looking at whether buildings as tall as skyscrapers could be built using modified wood. The team recently collaborated with British practice PLP Architecture and engineers Smith and Wallwork to propose an 80-storey, 300m (984ft) high wooden tower integrated within the Barbican arts centre in London.

Timber construction and its advantages and potential pitfalls is discussed in detail in the latest issue of CLADmag, with architects, fire-specialising engineers and academics offering their insight on the topic.

Molecular glue  timber rowers  wooden skyscrapers  architecture  design  engineering  University of Cambridge  University of Warwick 
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Molecules 10,000 times narrower than the width of a human hair could hold the key to building towering wooden skyscrapers in the future, new research has found. A father and son team at the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge in England have unlocked the mystery of how key sugars in cells bind to form strong, indigestible materials – a finding they believe could lead to the creation of super-strong skyscraper-supporting
ARC,DES,DEV,PHR,ECO,TEC,CLD
Architecture firms such as CF Møller, who are planning a timber tower in Stockholm, are looking towards wood as a viable skyscraper material / CF Møller
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Company profile: Robert D. Henry Architects + Interiors
Robert D Henry Architects (RDH-Architects) was founded in 1990 in New York City by Bob Henry, known as the “sensuous architect of serenity.”
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