Pykrete is a frozen ice alloy, originally made of approximately 14 percent sawdust or some other form of wood pulp (such as paper) and 86 percent ice by weight (6 to 1 by weight). During World War II, Geoffrey Pyke proposed it as a candidate material for a supersized aircraft carrier for the British Royal Navy. Pykrete features unusual properties, including a relatively slow melting rate due to its low thermal conductivity, as well as a vastly improved strength and toughness compared to ordinary ice. These physical properties can make the material comparable to concrete, as long as the material is kept frozen.
Pykrete is slightly more difficult to form than concrete, as it expands during the freezing process. However, it can be repaired and maintained using seawater as a raw material. The mixture can be moulded into any shape and frozen, and it will be tough and durable, as long as it is kept at or below freezing temperature. Resistance to gradual creep or sagging is improved by lowering the temperature further, to −15 °C (5 °F).
Since World War II, pykrete has remained a scientific curiosity, unexploited by research or construction of any significance. New concepts for pykrete however crop up occasionally among architects, engineers and futurists, usually regarding its potential for mammoth offshore construction or its improvement by applying super-strong materials such as synthetic composites or Kevlar.
In 1985, pykrete was considered for a quay in Oslo harbour. However, the idea was later shelved, considering pykrete’s unreliability in the real-world environment. Since pykrete needs to be preserved at or below freezing point, and tends to sag under its own weight at temperatures above −15 °C (5 °F), an alternative was considered that would guarantee effectiveness and public safety.
In 2011, the Vienna University of Technology successfully built a pykrete ice dome, measuring 10 metres (33 ft) in diameter. They improved on an original Japanese technique of spraying ice on a balloon by using the natural properties of ice and its strength. This structure managed to stand for three months before sunlight started melting the ice, rendering the structure unreliable. Researcher Johann Kollegger of Vienna University of Technology thinks his team’s alternative new method is easier, avoiding icy sprayback onto the workers. To build their freestanding structure, Kollegger and his colleagues first cut an 8-inch (200 mm) plate of ice into 16 segments. To sculpt the segments to have a dome-like curve, the researchers relied on ice’s creep behavior. If pressure is applied to ice, it slowly changes its shape without breaking. One of the mechanisms by which glaciers move, called glacial creep, functions similarly, the researchers say.
In 2014, the Eindhoven University of Technology worked on a pykrete architecture project in Juuka, Finland, which included an ice dome and a pykrete scale model of the Sagrada Familia. They attempted to build the largest ice dome in the world. Due to human error, the plug to a compressor that kept the balloon inflated was pulled, leading to the balloon deflating. The team of Dutch students quickly re-inflated the balloon, and resprayed the part of the dome that had collapsed. They continued with their construction, and eventually opened the dome to the public. However within a matter of days the roof caved in; there were no visitors on the site at the time.