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In futuristic ‘living’ buildings bacteria may replace bricks

In Wil Srubar’s lab at CU Boulder, researchers are aiming to do something unimaginable which can revolutionize building construction. Their goal is to create a living hybrid building material that exhibits both structural and biological function.

Think of the sand and cement used in a mortar. It’s inorganic. Not living. But Srubar’s work has shown that inorganic particles, like sand, can provide a rigid framework for a biological component like bacteria to grow and thrive. Combine the two, and you end up with a living material that has not only a structural load-bearing function, but also a beneficial biological one.

Srubar, a faculty member in civil, environmental and architectural engineering and the Materials Science & Engineering Program, said the possibilities for his work are endless and especially interesting in extreme environment and military applications. Bricks could self-heal after natural disasters or enemy fire, or act as alarms by changing color when there are toxins in the air.

The title of Srubar and his colleagues four-year, $1.9 million DARPA project is Programmable Resurrection of Materials Engineered to Heal Exponentially Using Switches, that is, PROMETHEUS for short.

At the center of the project are cyanobacteria, photosynthetic saltwater bacteria that can sequester carbon dioxide. Placing genetically altered versions of these bacteria into the building material would provide an environmental benefit, especially in terms of lowered carbon emissions from manufacturing materials.

Srubar is conducting the work with Assistant Professors Mija Hubler and Sherri Cook in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, and Professor Jeff Cameron in the Department of Biochemistry. They bring experience in the biological sciences, gene editing and structural mechanics – needed perspectives on an interdisciplinary project this large, Srubar said.

“They opened my eyes not only to different ways of looking at science and engineering, but also to ways in which we can address some of the challenges we encounter and then spin those challenges into opportunities,” he said. “Sharing some of the common challenges in materials science has bolstered our work in micro- and synthetic biology, for example. That is leading us in wildly cool and crazy directions in the project.”

Srubar feels as though his lab is truly pioneering a new field despite being deeply rooted in fundamental disciplines.

“For the first time we are questioning the paradigm of cementitious materials, and that is incredible because cement technology hasn’t changed in 100 years,” Srubar said. “While we are still some years away from seeing a true application, we do feel that we are creating this new discipline.”

(source: University of Colorado Boulder)




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