Nanotechnology offers tremendous potential for improving building materials, including cement and concrete, coatings, thermal insulation, composites and fire retardants, said Joannie Chin, leader of the Polymeric Materials Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, Colo. “A revolution has begun in science and engineering due to new-found abilities to manipulate and analyze materials at the nanoscale. This revolution is beginning to infiltrate the building and construction community in ways that you may not yet be aware of,” she said.

Chin was a panel member at the 40th Annual ECC Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., Sept. 3-6, organized by the Engineering and Construction Contracting Association, an affiliate of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

A nanostructured material is one in which at least one dimension is between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm) and a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter. Nanomaterials “can be multicomponent materials that contain nanoparticles as one of the components, or they can be single component materials that have some structural aspect, such as thickness, crystal size, pore size, grain size, on the order of 1-100 nm,” Chin said.

Nanomaterials are attracting so much research attention “primarily because at the nanoscale, materials can exhibit substantially different properties than they do at larger-length scales,” Chin said. They can change physical forms, become more reactive or become insulating instead of conducting, for example. Gaining control of materials at the nanoscale brings different laws of physics into play than those applying to conventional materials.

Chin cited a 2007 market research study by Freedonia Group Inc., Cleveland, that found nearly 500 consumer products in 20 countries contain nanomaterials. Over the coming years, said Chin, Construction applications will claim about 16% of the nanomaterials market, mostly for coatings and composites.

Research Report 251 published this year by the Construction Industry Institute, surveys the current state of nanotechnology for building and construction and supplies many examples of nanotechnology applications for the industry, she said.