What "Living Infrastructure" Means for Engineering

October 29, 2016

What "Living Infrastructure" Means for Engineering

Could building materials one day grow themselves back together? Maybe, if the US military has anything to do with it. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a special branch of the Department of Defense whose job it is to keep America at the cutting edge of technological innovation. Their latest focus? Getting engineers to consider building materials that are in essence “living ecosystems” all their own.

What are Engineered Living Materials?
Engineered Living Materials, or ELMs for short, are materials implemented for the specific purposes of growing and healing themselves. Consider mycelium fungus. When introduced into a molded form then fed agricultural waste, the mold grows to fill the form then can be hardened and rendered inert using heat. The trick will be finding the sweet spot in which materials can be encouraged to “live” with the ability to halt that process when necessary. Though the science is still in its infancy, engineers are enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Using ELMs in Structural Engineering
Structural engineering is a sector of the industry always facing challenges from logistics, shipping, material costs, and storage. DARPA suggests that ELMs could have a lasting impact on both the cost and scalability of large operations such as infrastructure building in remote locations. Consider the idea of an organic plywood “seed,” shipped in a small box to its final destination where it’s then “watered” and “fed” until it grows into the finished product.

Building with Living Infrastructure
Researchers are particularly interested in the inherent biological strength of certain proteins and bonds found in nature. The idea is, most likely, that structural engineers will imagine ways to create shells or skeletons out of conventional building materials then fill in the space with slow-growing organic matter. This could have particularly big impact on projects in which it’s difficult to get raw materials such as remote jungles or high-rise buildings.

 

It’s yet to be seen whether the idea of self-healing building materials is a moonshot or something more realistic, but it’s exciting nonetheless. Will there come a day when construction materials like concrete and steel are no longer necessary? Probably not, but our ancestors likely would have told you that feats like suspension bridges and mile-high buildings were impossible, too!

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