Researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Northumbria want to render traditional building foundations obsolete. They're working on engineering individual cells that react to changes in the environment and strengthen the soil around them, potentially making concrete-filled trenches unnecessary. Jim Drury reports.
Could buildings one day grow their own foundations? This British architect thinks so. He says that within a decade his research team will create bacteria that interacts with the soil, strengthening buildings above and rendering concrete-filled trenches obsolete SOUNDBITE (English) DR MARTYN DADE-ROBERTSON, READER IN DESIGN COMPUTATION, NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "What we want to do is design a type of bacteria that would detect the mechanical changes in that soil, essentially synthesise materials so they would make materials in response. So they're strengthening the soils where those loads are. The first part of that has been to identify pressure sensing genes, so genes in the bacteria that will respond to relatively low levels of pressure - and we can use that as a switch, effectively to turn on a process of material synthesis in the bacteria." His research team has identified dozens of genes in E. Coli bacteria, modifying them to create a 'gene circuit'. This enables bacteria to respond to its environment and produce 'biocement'. Research is at an early stage, although self-healing material is already used in some concrete. Here the concept is being taken much further. SOUNDBITE (English) DR MARTYN DADE-ROBERTSON, READER IN DESIGN COMPUTATION, NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We want to make the ground respond to the loads that are placed on it. The idea is that as you load the ground you get these pressures within this material and you get the ground essentially intelligently responding to those pressures by reinforcing itself, so you could construct large-scale civil engineering projects without digging those foundation trenches, by essentially seeding the ground with these microscopic bacteria." The team's new computer aided design application is already predicting where underground bacteria may produce materials. If a grant application succeeds, they hope to have created and tested large-scale responsive material within three years.