Episode 15: Cambridge Lecturer, Darshil Shah Talks About Biomaterials in the Built Environment Sectors

todayOctober 20, 2021


Henry McDonald interviews Cambridge lecturer, Darshil Shah, about biomaterials in the built environment sectors

Welcome to Constructive Voices published in the week leading up to a major event for the future of the planet. The United Nations cop 26 climate change conference will bring together world leaders with the recent IPCC report fresh in their minds. The report warned that urgent action is required to avoid the worst impacts of rising global temperatures. And with the construction industry playing such an important role in reducing carbon emissions and driving sustainability, we’re joined by Darshil Shah, a specialist in natural materials, who says change is essential.

Who is Dr Darshil Shah

Darshil Shah is a material scientist and lecturer in materials at the Department for Architecture at the University of Cambridge. He also works in the Centre for Natural Material Innovation, where the team looks at a range of different natural materials, particularly timber, bamboo and their engineered composites as well as linen, hemp and their engineered composites as alternatives to materials like concrete, steel, glass and carbon fibre composites for the built environment sector, but also a range of other application sectors. His full university biography is further below.

Listen to Episode 15 here


So nature has always been a source of grandeur and inspiration for me. And after graduating as an engineer, I had the opportunity to undertake PhD research on sustainable materials and manufacturing methods for the wind energy sector. And that was the first time when, as an engineer, I was challenged to foresee problems of material sustainability in a sector that was already green, because we always associate with wind turbines with sustainable energy production methods. And that made me understand think of and design solutions that could actually make it greener. And to do that I had to look at plants for solutions…

Dr. Darshil Shah

A 1-Minute Sneak Preview

Darshil Shah Senior Researcher

As a senior researcher within the Centre for Natural Material Innovation, Dr Darshil Shah works with scientists across disciplines on developing biomaterials, such as engineered wood, bamboo and natural fibre composites, as light-weight, sustainable and structural alternatives to conventional materials for various application sectors, including wind energy, construction, transport, health care, and consumer products. 

Some of Darshil’s current active research grants include:
‘Precision Engineered Timber: Digital design and delivery of healthier schools’, Centre for Digital Built Britain (Co-I, Jul 2019 – Jun 2022, £500k) 
‘FLOWER: Flax composites, LOW weight, End-of-life, and Recycling’, EU Interreg (Co-I R, Feb 2018 – Sept 2022, €4.6M)

‘Crop-Cam: Hemp biocomposite professional camera casing’ (Co-I, Feb 2017 – Sept 2018)
‘Natural material innovation for sustainable living’, Leverhulme (Post-doc, Oct 2014 – Oct 2019)

Darshil specialises in natural materials science and technology. Combining sustainability with performance and functionality in natural materials is a major driver of his research. His research covers three principal areas:

  • Applied Research Level: Developing low-embodied energy structural composites

Darshil examines structure-property-processing relations of natural fibre and recycled carbon fibre composites, and thereafter optimises their design, manufacture and properties for various application sectors, including wind energyconstructiontransport, health care, and consumer products. His research has received numerous distinguished awards, including the International Quadrant Award 2015 for outstanding scientific works in the field of engineering and high-performance plastics and composites, and the JEC Asia 2013 Innovation Award for the developing world’s first functional flax composite wind turbine blade.

  • Fundamental Research Level: Exploring natural materials & structures for bioinspiration

Darshil and Biomechanics

From a perspective of biomechanics, Darshil explores natural materials and structures as models. These models include plant stems and cell wallselephant’s dentinous ivory tusks, and spider’s and silkworm’s silks. These studies offer insights into how we can mimic nature to use material and energy, structure and form, and information and processes to design effective solutions.

  • Combining Fundamental & Applied Research: Designing smart, functional biomaterials 

Marrying both research levels, Darshil develops smart biomaterials as new disruptive technologies. These have included a green method to produce spider silk inspired fibres drawn from a supramolecular hydrogel at room temperature, fireproof timber with graphene coating, and mechanophore-attached silk fibres as strain sensors for health monitoring of fibre reinforced composite interfaces.

Prior to working at Cambridge, Darshil did post-doctoral research on silk-based and biological composites at the University of Oxford’s Silk Group (Dept. of Zoology, 2013-2014), and obtained his PhD on developing plant fibre composites for wind energy applications at the University of Nottingham’s Composite Research Group (Faculty of Engineering, 2009-2013).

Darshil Shah Teaching

Darshil teaches in the Dept. of Engineering (supervisions for Materials 1A and 1B, and IIB projects), and in the Dept. of Materials Science and Metallurgy (supervisor for Part II Techniques Project, Demonstrations for 1A Biomaterials and IB Non-Metallic Materials). Darshil also gives guest lectures, seminars and workshops for the Dept. of Architecture and for the Institute of Continuing Education (e.g. on ‘Materials & the environment’, ‘Visions of the Future: Biomaterials and bioarchitecture for the future). He is co-supervisor to one PhD student and takes on undergraduate research students every year to work on active real-world research projects.

Darshil’s teaching philosophy is social constructivist, encouraging students to interact with each other in class and learn from each other’s ideas, experiences and knowledge. Using a range of teaching methods, he frequently combines brief discursive lectures with problem-based and/or hands-on learning to give students an experiential learning environment for interdisciplinary communication. Darshil is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is currently undertaking a PGCert in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education (2019-2020) at the University of Cambridge.

Darshil and colleagues (Dr MH Ramage, Architecture; Dr J Orr, Engineering) have received University of Cambridge’s Academic Seed Funding (Jan 2019-Dec 2021, £581k) to develop a new interdisciplinary undergraduate Tripos, ‘Materials Architecture Design Engineering’ (MADE) to address the intellectual challenges and learning opportunities presented by the grand challenges in the UK and around the world. This new Tripos will bring together the Schools of Technology, Arts and Humanities, and Physical Sciences in a curriculum with a common theme of creative interdisciplinary design. 

Pete Ireland’s Favourite TV Builder discusses the same topic in his own unique way

Don’t miss our man-on-the-ground’s take on this subject. He makes a really accessible comparison that you will enjoy, we hope!

But most importantly, Pete has to deal with these changes just like many of our listeners. As always, he is honest and down to earth about this!

Written by: Jackie De Burca

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