Can green bricks make energy from the building blocks of our homes? Standard fired brick is something everyone is familiar with, a universal building material, produced by thousand-year-old technology that throughout history has seldom served any other purpose.
Not many corporates would see brick as suitable for anything else, but brick and a whole host of sustainable technologies are beginning to be reimagined as products that offer many green bonuses, in addition to their primary purpose.
Such changes are coming across many facets of the building industry. CNBCTV reports that breakthroughs in photovoltaic cell technology may soon enable solar cells to be put on windows, while keeping the windows mostly transparent.
Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science and Monash University have created perovskite solar cells, which allow light to pass through while generating electricity from solar exposure.
“We’ll be looking to develop a large-scale glass manufacturing process that can be easily transferred to industry, so manufacturers can readily uptake the technology,” said co-author and CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) research scientist, Dr Anthony Chesman.
There are some intriguing metrics that support the business case for doubling up on building material’s functions. These make interesting reading for either investors or indeed corporates keen to uptake such technologies across their estates.
For examples, glass windows are a significant cost factor, but adding in solar capability will increase the cost only marginally with an added benefit of electricity generation. Solar windows will be able to generate 140 watts of electricity per square metre but that could increase or decrease based on the transparency.
And, moving back to bricks – they might in future do sterling sustainability work too.
A potted history of brick
Fired brick is typically used for construction and is one of the most durable human-made materials with a 5000 year history dating back to Neolithic China. The masonry building block is commonly found in various red tones and mostly comprised of fused particles of silica, alumina and hematite.
As it turns out, the hematite is the key for corporate sustainability purposes. Energy storage materials, handily, can also be produced from hematite. Without diving into forensic detail, fired brick’s open microstructure and strength make it an ideal substrate for developing electrochemical PEDOT electrodes and stationary supercapacitors.
All of that means one relevant thing; potential energy. The Independent writes that the cheap and ubiquitous material could be converted into energy storage units to hold electricity, potentially transforming houses into giant super capacitors.
“Bricks are ideal building blocks that can provide power to emergency lighting,” said Julio D’Arcy, assistant professor of chemistry at Washington University. “We envision that this could be a reality when you connect our bricks with solar cells – this could take 50 bricks in close proximity to the load.
“These 50 bricks would power emergency lighting for five hours. Advantageously, a brick wall serving as a super capacitor can be recharged hundreds of thousands of times within an hour.”
And New Scientist writes that a brick could have more energy than an AA battery, but a AA battery is incredibly inexpensive. Each brick costs some $2 to $3 to make. If the bricks can be made commercially viable as a building material, we may eventually have brick walls that our electronics can plug right into.
Commercialisation and profitability
One of the most exciting drivers behind the future commercialisation of these and indeed other technologies is the UK’s emerging green building market, along with new green lending.
Lloyds Bank believes that making the UK’s homes greener and more energy efficient is an essential step in mitigating the UK’s contribution to climate change.
It argues that our homes currently account for 23 percent of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions and 35 percent of energy use. As the demand for high quality homes is steadily increasing across the nation, the need to decrease the resulting carbon emissions is urgent.
Lloyds says that as well as being a UK government priority, making greener progress is top of the agenda across most of the UK’s most profitable industries.
From the upcoming switch over to electric vehicles in 2030 in the transport and motor sector, to the emphasis on investment in renewable energy, it’s clear that going green isn’t only the right thing to do for the planet, it also makes good business sense.
Lloyds explains that the transition to a low carbon economy – a ‘green’ economy – will support the UK’s recovery and promote long term prosperity, while helping to make our planet more resilient and driving inclusive growth. Housing, of course, plays a vital role within this agenda.
So, the market conditions, generally, are ripe for these alternatives. But what specifics incentivise our greener bricks in practice and open up greener buildings? UK domestic properties, and it is worth noting commercial tenanted buildings, are rated on a colour-coded scale Energy Performance Certificate (A-G).
A is the most efficient, with the cheapest energy bills and the lowest impact on the environment. Homes that rank from a C grade and upwards would be considered ‘green’.
Certain existing features that would help to contribute to a higher (A-C) EPC rating include double glazing in windows, cavity wall and roof insulation and low energy lighting. There is no reason why with the correct proofs on their green credentials, green energy bricks and indeed energy creating glass couldn’t be added to this list.
At this stage, the question becomes about how to financially incentivise and build these green tech housing markets.
Further changes to EPC ratings are the first in a number of new initiatives by the Government to improve energy efficiency across commercial lettings too. Since 2018 a minimum EPC rating of E has been in place for new tenancies, but from 1st April 2023 this is set to change and the same rule will apply to all existing leases. This means that it will be unlawful for a landlord to continue to let a commercial property with an EPC rating of less than E.
What adds to EPC’s potency?
Lloyds’ research indicates a correlation between greener, more energy efficient homes being worth more than homes with a lower EPC rating. Across all Local Authority Districts in England and Wales, Lloyds found that there’s an increase in property prices of £474, per one point increase in energy efficiency, on a scale from roughly from 1-100.
This means increasing a property’s EPC rating from E > A would, on average, increase its value by £21,300, and there are even greater returns on improving highly energy inefficient properties.
There are, this hints, big corporate opportunities. Property energy efficiency is increasingly more important to businesses, as well as to homeowners themselves. While there are specialist green mortgages and grants on the market the EPC rating of a property is likely to become ever more important in the mortgage market too.
So much so that Lloyds is studying ways to capture the efficiency rating as part of the mortgage application process. These are no small sums; Lloyds is pumping 1.5 billion of new funding support at greening up UK housing, including £500 million in environmental and social governance (ESG) linked funding, in support of the social housing sector.
And already, Halifax’s green mortgage cashback scheme offers £250 to those buying homes with an EPC rating of A or B.
Lloyds is also looking at increasing its green financing options. Green finance is a loan or investment that supports environmentally friendly activity, such as purchasing environmentally friendly goods and services or building environmentally friendly infrastructure – like energy bricks.
The logic runs that making the necessary lifestyle and business changes to become greener can be expensive, so green financing can include incentives that make it easier to deal with the cost of improving the energy efficiency of buildings.
This financing also expands the number of individuals and businesses who can gain access to environmentally friendly goods and services, especially for the vulnerable and marginalised. This makes the transition to a low carbon society more equal, creating more socially inclusive growth.
It additionally means more money is invested into businesses to help them become greener. This can help businesses to grow, creating jobs, reducing carbon emissions and stimulating the economy, creating a ‘great green multiplier’ effect where both the economy and environment continuously benefit.
The final word
Healthy scepticism surrounds new wonder sustainability materials. Many never make it to commercialisation, or fail on tests when stressed in the real world.
Nonetheless, if these obstacles can be overcome, there’s little doubt both market conditions and the demands of greener business and climate change could make green buildings and green energy with aspects including including green bricks, solar panel windows and other energy technologies a very significant part of future building design.
SEE ALSO: The Potential of Energy Storing Bricks