Fraunhofer IBP makes improvements to ETFE material

Buildings like the Eden Project in Cornwall and the Water Cube Aquatics Centre in Beijing may become more common in towns and cities thanks to new advances in the plastic film used to make them.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics (IBP) have developed new ways to process ethylene tetraflourethylene (ETFE), which will give architects entirely new design options.

So far the material has been reserved for specialist, one-off architectural experiments, such as the Eden Project, Water Cube and the Allianz Arena in Munich.

But improvements in the material, which will allow it to regulate heat, coolness and light could see it used routinely in construction.

Robert Hodann, chief executive at film manufacturer Nowofol and industrial partner of the research project, said: ‘We believe that ETFE will emerge as a strong market of its own. The captivating thing about ETFE foil is its transparency combined with its great strength – no other plastic membrane can compete.’

What the IBP engineers have managed to do is to add various coating layers to ETFE, which change the properties of the material.

One example is an inner coating of tungsten trioxide, which turns blue as it comes into contact with hydrogen and loses its colour with oxygen – allowing the passage of light to be easily regulated.

‘You could use a foil such as this to cover the entire façade of a house and have light pass depending upon sunlight conditions,’ said Andreas Kaufmann, project co-ordinator at the IBP.

Alternatively, paper-thin layers of aluminium and special paint allow heat radiation to be effectively reflected, enabling better insulation. The researchers have even come up with an antibacterial layer that will inhibit the growth of mould and yeasts.

The research will be presented at the BAU architectural, material and systems fair in Munich, Germany, from 17-22 January 2011.