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How silicones built the construction revolution

Ultra-high skyscrapers have only been made possible in very recent years thanks to impressive advances in modern technology. So, how do tall buildings withstand extreme conditions in the heights?

Amid 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.

Buildings emit less greenhouse gases and have become more energy efficient. Their construction uses less resources, they last longer, they need less repair. There have been huge advances in earthquake, wind and temperature resistance, making buildings safer than ever. 

According to the European Commission, buildings make up 40% of the energy use in Europe. The sector is 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. So, the aim should not be to construct less but to construct better. 

Welcoming the future
How did construction achieve those heights and energy savings? How will it continue to improve to meet tomorrow’s needs? Advancements in engineering and architecture are fundamental – but the role of material science, silicones in particular, needs highlighting.Silicones: the Burj Khalifa

Silicones were first used in construction over 50 years ago – and still hold many of those same buildings together today. This inventive chemistry set revolutionised construction with a multitude of positive attributes. And silicone innovation continues – every year the silicones industry invests 4% of earnings in R&D. Here are some of the core achievements to date:

Silicones used in structural glazing protect and maintain the long-term quality and appearance of a building façade. These façades 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. 

Not only do silicones help construction in extreme conditions, but they also contribute to the circular economy, reducing the amount of materials used (eliminating the use of mechanical fasteners, among others), increasing buildings’ lifespans and improving energy efficiency.

Insulated window glazing using silicone sealants saves nearly 30 times more greenhouse gas than was emitted when made. The use of silicone additives and coatings also reduces water ingress by up to 80%. Considering water intake is the predominant reason for biodegradation of buildings, this is vital.

Silicones help buildings become ‘net-zero’ emitters, through building-integrated photovoltaic materials that provide a renewable energy source in place of a regular roof, skylight, or façade.

Watch: Silicones in action… how they enable construction innovation

Life support
Silicone coatings reduce degradation and help lengthen the operational lifetime of buildings and façades, avoiding costs 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 (above) and many others.

The possibilities for architectural and engineering innovations with silicones is vast. In the future, silicones show potential for dynamic glass, next generation lighting and completely transparent bonding materials, among others.

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.

Dr Pierre Germain is CES Secretary-General of CES-Sillicones Europe. Contact +32 (0)2 676 73 77 or pge@cefic.be

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