Infrastructure grown from Carbon Dioxide.

PYLON is a response to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) issued a challenge to design a replacement for the existing stock of 86,000 rusting, steel high-tension power line pylons across Great Britain.   RIBA placed the setting for this competition in the year 2050 to open up the field to burgeoning technologies.

ORE’s PYLON evolves the traditional pylon design to reflect contemporary concerns and material possibilities.

ORE looked to a developing technology which creates carbon fiber from atmospheric CO2.  ORE saw this as a potential to create resilient structure literally grown from CO2 captured during the production of electricity.

Over the last 150 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen 35% from 280 to nearly 380 parts per million.  Global warming and its attendant effects have been directly linked to this increase in carbon emissions, primarily from burning fossil fuels.   The United Kingdom’s goal of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 will require a heavier reliance on alternate sources of electricity generation, thereby requiring more infrastructure to carry that electricity. Traditional pylons are composed of steel, and sit on the landscape as utilitarian objects.  We propose to evolve that typology by creating a structure that dynamically engages with the surrounding environment.  We therefore present the new National Grid pylon as both an iconic expression of robust material as well as a method to reverse the last 150 years of British carbon emission.

 

Infrastructure grown from byproduct, turning back UK’s Carbon clock

Trees and forests are natural carbon scrubbers, pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  This carbon is effectively sequestered in the trees themselves.  Unfortunately, continuing deforestation contributes to roughly 20% of global carbon emissions.  The new National Grid pylon counteracts this, offsetting the atmospheric effects associated with deforestation by sequestering large amounts of carbon in its very structure.  Each pylon uses 64 cubic meters of carbon fiber, which in turn represents 368 tons of carbon dioxide.  Extrapolated over the infrastructure of the entire UK, this is a significant contribution to carbon sequestration efforts.

The choice of carbon fiber was not solely based on its superlative qualities as a construction material, but also as a statement about the history, and future, of carbon emissions in the UK.    Since the Industrial Revolution, the United Kingdom has been producing massive amounts of coal, fuel, and gas energy.   Currently, these processes release 500 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year from the UK alone. While the very competition itself is predicated on the notion of transitioning away from carbon-based energy, our proposal takes it a step further.  The new National Grid pylons are constructed of carbon fiber spun onsite from CO2 captured from the conventional production of electricity.   By using carbon fiber, we are sequestering carbon into a static form.  The total amount of carbon used across the UK in our design will be a step towards reversing the amount of carbon that has been released since the Industrial Revolution.  Hence, our design not only ushers in the future but exalts the past, before these environmental issues existed.

Structure spun from CO2 

The new National Grid pylon’s primary structural element is carbon fiber with a carbon content of nearly 85%.   Current carbon fiber technology is 4 times lighter than steel, with 2.5 times the tensile strength.  Carbon fiber is naturally highly weather resistant, ductile, and as a composite is non-conductive.

The scalability of site printing the pylon’s structural members and the strength of the woven carbon skin allows for the ability to create programmatically determined spaces such as maintenance access areas, pollution testing stations, and bird habitat.  These ancillary spaces are thus integral to the global design, rather than being tacked on afterthoughts.  This preserves the aesthetic and functional beauty of the pylon.

The tower is skin-loaded, bearing its weight in the woven web of carbon that gives its distinctive shape.  The individual members, ranging in diameter from 3 cm to 9 cm, will be printed by robotic units that spin carbon fiber converted from CO2 that has been scrubbed and stored from coal, gas, and oil electricity production.  The height and configuration of the printed members follow pre-programmed design parameters, but are also directly defined by the site conditions.   The twisting structure of the new pylon design gives great flexibility in terms of adapting to specific landscape conditions.  Because the form is one period on a theoretically endless wave, it can be truncated to accommodate various terrains.  In order to stabilize on uneven ground, one spine of the structure will simply be elongated or shortened, as necessary.

Interior of Spun Carbon Fiber Pylons creating Bird Habitat

PYLON’s woven structure creates nesting platforms for local British bird populations with endangered habitat. 

The new National Grid pylon’s skin openings and offset woven members are designed to create nesting areas for birds.  By “slicing” into the skin of the pylon, small perforations are created which become nesting platforms for local bird populations.  These include kestrel and other raptors, as well as kingfisher and other species.  Because the carbon fiber composite is non-conducting, the limb-like carbon tendrils create a safe, opportune place for birds to nest.  The new pylon design transforms the very idea of a pylon, from an obstruction in the natural world into an enhancement.

Teeming with bird life, the new National Grid pylon is, in a way, a surrogate tree.  Though the pylon does not seek to replicate the form of a tree, it boasts a design that appropriates some of the function.  The compelling, organic profile integrates into the landscape more subtly than the old pylon, and of course the new National Grid pylon provides purpose-designed bird habitats.  Their similarity to trees, however, is even more profound.

Because the new National Grid pylon can be custom printed to conform to site conditions, slight variations in the form can occur without compromising basic spatial design requirements.  Hence, in all instances there is a minimum 8.1m clearance between the ground and all conductors, as well as a minimum circuit phase separation of 8m.  Further, there is a single isolated steel core earth wire at a 5° angle to the tower structure, well clear of the 35° limit.

The utility of the new National Grid pylon extends into the future and beyond the UK.  The design can be implemented in any country, bringing its benefits to other regions.  Furthermore, as energy becomes cleaner domestically, carbon can be purchased from other countries, globalizing carbon sequestration.  Rather than simply purchasing carbon offsets, actual carbon emissions from around the globe can be purchased, sequestering ever more CO2.

The new National Grid pylon is a look forward to the UK’s commitment to a greener future.  Acknowledging our role, as humans, in stewarding the environment, our design actively supports the wildlife displaced by habitat-encroaching developments of the past.  Its integral use of sequestered carbon not only looks to the future of materiality, but nods to the past in reverence of environmental health.

 

Client: Royal Institute of British Architects International Competition 2012
Program: High-Tension Power Line Infrastructure for the UK
Area: 86,000 Pylons
Status: Concept