What makes a material green? Green materials are materials that are local and renewable. Local materials often are unique to the place and connect whatever people make within an area or region. Materials from the ground such as clay, sand and stone are green materials as they are found underfoot. Plant materials such as grasses, straw, wood and bamboo are also materials that have been used by humans since they started building. Plant materials that grow quickly are for the most part renewable. Reclaimed materials are materials that can be reused in their existing form for new purposes. Reclaimed materials are green in the sense that they can be re-purposed and reused. Recyclable materials are materials that can move from being waste material to being reused through reprocessing or re-purposing. Green materials today are defined as materials that are non-toxic, improve occupancy health, lower cost, and conserve energy and water use and waste products.Non-toxic materials are materials that do not cause harm to the environment, to the users of the material or to the producers of the material. Green materials are also materials that have low embedded energy in their harvesting or collection, production, transportation and use. Material scientists work with chemical and biological engineers to develope new and better materials. Let’s explore green materials!
Activity 1 – Durable and Local
A first and easy step to using green materials is to start with local materials. What materials are produced in the region where you live? Are there forests that produce lumber? Are there quarries that produce stone? Is there a steel mill nearby? Is there a brick factory anywhere close by? Using local materials cuts down on transportation energy and production energy, use and cost. Make a map of materials produced in your region; include your state and adjacent states. Do you see these materials being used in buildings in your city?
Activity 2 – Embedded Energy in Materials
What makes a material “green”? To answer these questions, we need to look at the ‘big picture’ of a material. The ‘big’ picture looks at the ‘life of a material’. We look at where the material exists first (if it exists in the natural world), how the material is acquired (located and/or extracted), how it is prepared (produced), how it is designed (product manufacturing), how it functions (product use), and then how it discarded. The life of a material assesses energy embodied in all of these stages because the energy required to obtain the material, process the material, transport the material, produce the material, use the materials and dispose of the material is all part of being ‘green’. Scientists and manufacturers and producers are looking to minimize energy use in all of these phases to create ‘greener’ materials. Research a material from its source, through extraction, transport, manufacturing, production, construction, life span and finally, reuse. Make a chart showing at least four categories of embedded energy for at least two materials:
Become an **embodied energy expert!
Activity 3 – Life Cycle Ecology of Green Materials
When is a material born? How is it used? What type of installation does it take? How is it maintained? How long will it last? What happens to it when its use is finished? All of these questions are good questions about the life cycle of materials. Some materials last longer than others. Think of the stone pyramids that have been around for thousands of years. Then think of the plastic pen you write with. You may be surprised to find out that that pen is non bio degradable, and will probably outlast pyramids by thousands of years, if not forever! Many fibers and composites used in today’s products are petroleum-based, non-renewable and unsustainable. Look around your house. Find five different materials. Research those materials. Make a chart that shows the life span of each material and label them as renewable or non renewable.
Activity 4 – VOCs and TOXIC materials
Chemists and materials scientists study the structures, compositions, reactions, and properties of substances. Thy work in laboratories looking into the nano technological interactions of the atomic and molecular structures and reactions of materials. They discovered that some materials are actually toxic, or harmful to people and the environment. Materials found to be toxic emit volatile organic compounds, more commonly known as VOCs into the air. These VOC’s are emitted by thousands of products and building materials including paints, paint strippers, cleaning chemicals, pesticides, glues and laminates. In addition VOCs are emitted by office copiers, printers, furniture, and wall, ceiling and floor finishes. It was discovered that VOCs were five to ten times higher or more concentrated inside of houses than out. Some VOC’s cause headaches, sore throats, allergies, and potentially even cancer. Research acceptable levels of VOCs based on the World Health Organization and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Which definition of VOC’s do you think is the best and why?
Activity 5 – Imagine new materials
Now that you know more about materials- their characteristics, toxicity, VOC content, life cycle and embodied energy, imagine that you are a material scientist. If you could create a new material in the world what would it be and what would it do? Write a short paper about your new material and show a picture of it and how it would be used. Make sure you tell what characteristics or attributes would make it a ‘green material’.
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- Bureau of Labor Statistices: Occupational Outlook Material Scientists
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- Choosing Green Materials EPA
- Cornell Center for Materials Research: Green Materials
- Ecovative Design
- EPA Introduction to Indoor Air Quality and VOCs
- EPA VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)
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- Life Expectancy of Materials and Appliances in Homes
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