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Termites teach scientists to build for future

9/27

By Clive Cookson

Science Editor / FT.com

Published: September 25 2004 03:00

Engineers and entomologists are getting together to bring the construction industry back to nature. Research led by Loughborough University will use African termite mounds as a model for buildings that would be self-sufficient, environmentally friendly and cheap to run.

The study aims to discover how the mounds, with their extremely elaborate ventilation channels, regulate internal air quality, temperature and moisture levels for up to 1m termites living beneath them. The scientists will then draw lessons for human construction.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will fund the £421,000, three-year project that also involves Cambridge University and the State University of New York in Syracuse.

Starting in Namibia, researchers will scan the internal structure of the mounds which typically scale heights of 3 to9 metres. This will provide a three-dimensional computer model for scientists to develop an understanding of how the mounds work.

Rupert Soar, the project leader at Loughborough's engineering school, said new "rapid manufacturing" techniques - in which computer- controlled equipment can build up elaborate 3D polymer structures - would make it possible to apply some of the Macrotermes michaelseni termites' principles to innovative buildings.

Companies such as Qinetiq, the defence research contractor, and British Gypsum, the building materials manufacturer, are following the work closely, Mr Soar said.

Scott Turner of SUNY, one of the entomologists taking part in the project, sees termite mounds as "organs of gas exchange, which serve the respiratory needs of the colony, located about a metre or two underground. The colony's respiratory needs are prodigious - one colony contains as many as a million termites that collectively consume oxygen at about the same rate as a cow".

The mounds are oriented to capture as much wind energy as possible, to ventilate the nest and achieve "homeostasis" - an internal balance with little variation in temperature, humidity and air quality. This is necessary not only for the termite inhabitants but also for the fungus they "farm" inside the mound.

"The termites have evolved to outsource some biological functions," said Mr Soar. "The fungus carries out a digestive function; the termites supply the fungus with chewed wood fibre, which it breaks down into nutritious food."

The human equivalent of these "smart" mounds would be buildings that meet all energy, waste management and other needs on site.

"We hope that our findings will provide clues that aid the ultimate development of new kinds of self-sufficient human habitats," Mr Soar said. "These habitats might be suited to use in a variety of arid, hostile environments, not only on the Earth but maybe one day on the moon and beyond."

The Loughborough team has also drawn up a more futuristic research proposal to develop self-replicating robots, based on termites, for space exploration.

These would build and populate colonies that "mimic and adapt the structures produced by termites" - and would give Britain a lead in "off-world construction techniques".


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