Smart Brick Could Change Energy Storage in Buildings
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on August 27, 2020 |
Researchers develop "smart bricks" for more innovative, sustainable building construction.

No matter what city one is in, there is a good chance that many of the homes and other buildings located there are made with bricks. Bricks have been a staple in construction for thousands of years, and researchers at Washington University in St. Louis may have just made bricks even better. In a recent paper, the team unveiled its “smart brick,” which is capable of storing energy.

“What we have demonstrated in our paper is sufficient enough for you to light up emergency lighting that’s in a hallway or sensors that could be embedded inside the walls of a house,” said Julio M. D’Arcy, assistant professor of chemistry. “The next step is trying to store more energy so that you can power bigger devices—like maybe a laptop—directly from the walls of the house.”

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis transformed a conventional brick into an energy storage device that can power an LED light. (Image courtesy of Washington University/D’Arcy Research Lab.)
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis transformed a conventional brick into an energy storage device that can power an LED light. (Image courtesy of Washington University/D’Arcy Research Lab.)

As more emphasis is being placed on reducing carbon emissions and finding newer renewable energy sources, finding ways to store that energy is also needed. While lithium-ion batteries have been a trending option, the scarcity of lithium and the potential environmental consequences associated with it have many thinking outside of the box. Enter D’Arcy and his team.

Originally focused on the chemical synthesis of iron oxide, which gives bricks their color, the researchers were conducting experiments with corroded metal, red roof tiles and clay power pots. The materials were immersed in gases, which then created a reaction with the rust that resulted in a conductive plastic coating. Although it may have been unconventional to turn their attention to a functional object instead of plastic films or other similar areas of research, the team quickly realized the full potential a simple brick had.

“We took advantage of what bricks offer, and what they offer is a porous network and a very strong material,” D’Arcy said.

Using the same gases as in their other experiments, the team filled the maze-like pores inside the brick. The reaction was a plastic nanofiber coating, known as PEDOT, as well as causing the bricks to turn from reddish orange to a dark blue. Due to the multitude of pores, more of the brick’s interior surface was coated. That enhanced the brick’s ability to store energy and turned it into a supercapacitor, which isn’t able to store as much energy but can more powerfully and quickly discharge electricity.

“A battery will give you energy density that will allow you to drive 300 miles, but a supercapacitor will allow you to accelerate very quickly at a red light,” D’Arcy said.

A standard brick pumped with various gases creates a nanofiber plastic coating that is able to conduct energy. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis transformed a conventional brick into an energy storage device that can power an LED light. (Image courtesy of Washington University/D’Arcy Research Lab.)
A standard brick pumped with various gases creates a nanofiber plastic coating that is able to conduct energy. (Image courtesy of Washington University/D’Arcy Research Lab.)

In their research, the team stacked about 60 bricks, which were able to store enough energy to power a 3-watt light bulb for nearly one hour. Although the smart bricks aren’t quite ready to power much else or for long enough yet, they recharge within 15 minutes. While more research is needed, the team believes this proof of concept may one day result in walls that are able to store energy.


Interested in more ways that researchers are potentially changing the future of construction? Check out Bio-Bricks Hint at a Greener, Self-Healing Future for AEC and New Laser Process Bends Glass into 90-Degree Angles.

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