Skip to main content
Move the World.
3D Printed Homes

Lead Image Courtesy of the American Chemical Society

Concrete is the construction material of choice for major projects for good reason: it's strong, durable, cheap, and easy to work with. It's even proven ideal as an "ink" for 3D printed homes and other structures, which has opened up new design options, while cutting construction timelines and costs.

But concrete is also bad for the environment.

The production of cement — a primary ingredient of concrete — accounts for 8% of human-made CO2 emissions. Transporting concrete to a building site produces more emissions, as does the energy-intensive process of mixing it.

Now, researchers from Texas A&M University have developed a technique to transform the soil already at a building site into a printable construction material.

They say this ink is more sustainable than concrete, and it could also allow for the construction of 3D printed homes and structures in hostile or extreme environments — where using concrete wouldn't even be a viable option.

A Sustainable Construction Material

The Texas A&M researchers' study began with the collection of clay soil samples from a colleague's backyard. Using only environmentally friendly substances, they tweaked the soil's composition until they had an ink that was the right consistency for 3D printing.

After printing some small test structures, to ensure the ink held together, the researchers then added a non-toxic byproduct of sugar beet processing to the mix.

This prevented the material from absorbing any water and subsequently expanding, which would compromise the building's structural integrity. Its addition doubled the amount of weight the soil-based structures could support.

Currently, the material can withstand the pressure of up to 5 megapascals. The concrete used for residential buildings, meanwhile, can withstand up to about 17 megapascals.

The researchers now are looking for ways to increase the soil-based ink's strength even further, with the goal of getting as close to that of concrete as possible. After that, they plan to print larger structures for testing.

3D Printed Homes Anywhere

Transforming Texas soil into a construction material that could one day be used for 3D printed homes took a lot of scientific know-how, researcher Aayushi Bajpayee told Inverse.

"Turning backyard clay into a printable formulation required the considerable design of the chemistry," she explained. "We had to make sure that the formulation did not set too rapidly, since that would clog the nozzle, or too slowly-since that would make it impossible to put down the next layer."

If the machinery can reach a location, 3D printed homes could follow.

But all of that effort was just the first step toward the group's ultimate goal: making it possible to turn any soil into a usable ink. To that end, they're developing a toolkit to analyze a soil sample and determine exactly how to convert that soil into a strong, printable construction material.

Ultimately, they hope their soil-based ink will negate some of the environmental impact of concrete, while also making it possible to build 3D printed homes in places where affordable housing is non-existent — if the 3D printing machinery can reach a location, homes could follow.

The researchers even suggest in their paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Materials, that local soil could one day be used to build medical clinics in remote jungles or maybe even structures on planets beyond Earth — no need to transport concrete to Mars if the local soil will do.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

3D Printing
The World's First Floating 3D Printed House
3D Printed House
3D Printing
The World's First Floating 3D Printed House
A group in the Czech Republic is using a 3D printing robot to construct what it claims will be the world’s first floating 3D printed house.

A group in the Czech Republic is using a 3D printing robot to construct what it claims will be the world’s first floating 3D printed house.

The New Space Race
Why This Startup Believes 3D Printing in Space Will Be a Game Changer
Why This Startup Believes 3D Printing in Space Will Be a Game Changer
The New Space Race
Why This Startup Believes 3D Printing in Space Will Be a Game Changer
Sending things into space is really expensive. But what if we didn't have to? What if everything in space was made...
By Mike Riggs

Sending things into space is really expensive. But what if we didn't have to? What if everything in space was made in space?

Uprising
The Construction Robots Building Space Colonies
contruction robots
Uprising
The Construction Robots Building Space Colonies
Sending construction robots into outer space will help pave the way for human exploration, but there are some real challenges that lie ahead.
By Tien Nguyen

Sending construction robots into outer space will help pave the way for human exploration, but there are some real challenges that lie ahead.

Living in Space
Space Architects Are Building a Home to Live on the Moon
people on the moon
Living in Space
Space Architects Are Building a Home to Live on the Moon
The space architects of Saga have developed a habitat for people on the moon. Now they want to put it to the test in the endless arctic sun of Greenland.

The space architects of Saga have developed a habitat for people on the moon. Now they want to put it to the test in the endless arctic sun of Greenland.

Superhuman
3-D Printing Prosthetics for Kids
3-D Printing Prosthetics for Kids
Watch Now
Superhuman
3-D Printing Prosthetics for Kids
The incredible movement of shared designs and tech that’s making prosthetics better and cheaper for everyone.
Watch Now

Powered by 3D printer technology, people are making prosthetics at a fraction of the cost. Watch this episode of “Superhuman” for the story of how e-NABLE, an online network of volunteers, has created 3,000 bionic hands for people in need (mostly kids) across 90 countries.

Superhuman
How 3D-Printing Is Revolutionizing Heart Surgery
How 3D-Printing Is Revolutionizing Heart Surgery
Watch Now
Superhuman
How 3D-Printing Is Revolutionizing Heart Surgery
When a young boy was facing a complicated and dangerous heart operation, his doctors created an exact model of his heart to plan the surgery. And it probably saved his life.
Watch Now

Joseph had one of the most complicated heart conditions his doctors had ever seen. He faced a long and dangerous operation or a heart transplant. Without either, he wouldn't survive. Opting for surgery, Dr. Petros Anagnostopoulos at the American Family Children's Hospital prepped like few have ever done. He and his team 3D-printed a copy of Joseph's heart that they could explore and understand. It was another step forward...

Dispatches
The Cost of Sucking Carbon Out of the Air Just Fell By 85%
The Cost of Sucking Carbon Out of the Air Just Fell By 85%
Dispatches
The Cost of Sucking Carbon Out of the Air Just Fell By 85%
It's not there yet, but carbon capture just got interesting.