Mounds built by highly-evolved African termites could inspire new types of building that are self-sufficient, environmentally friendly and cheap to run.
The mounds provide a self-regulating living environment that responds to changing internal and external conditions.
A multidisciplinary team of engineers and entomologists is looking at whether similar principles could be used to design buildings that need few or no mechanical services (e.g. heating and ventilation) and so use less energy and other resources than conventional structures.
Loughborough University is leading this innovative project, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The initiative will include research in Namibia to digitally scan the structure of the termite mounds. This research will be filmed by the BBC Natural History Unit for inclusion in a new Sir David Attenborough series due to be screened in 2006.
The mounds incorporate a complicated network of tunnels and air conduits designed to channel air flow for the control of internal air quality, temperature and moisture levels. Furthermore, the termites have evolved in such a way that they out source some biological functions, for example, digestive functions to a fungus that they farm inside the mound. They supply the fungus with chewed wood fibre which the fungus breaks down into nutritious food. The structure of the mound ensures a constant and optimum environment for the fungus to thrive.
The human equivalent of these 'smart' mounds would be buildings that meet all energy, waste management and other needs on site. By digitally scanning the mounds, the new project will allow their three dimensional architecture to be mapped in a level of detail never achieved before. This computer model will help scientists develop an understanding of exactly how the mounds work and so provide a platform for further studies.
Dr Rupert Soar of Loughborough University's School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering is leading the team. Dr Soar says, "we hope that our findings will provide clues that aid the ultimate development of new kinds of self-sufficient human habitats. 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 three year research initiative, '3D Mapping of Macrotermes michaelseni Mounds and Simulation of Their Homeostatic Functions – Lessons for Human Construction', will receive EPSRC funding of just over £421,000.
The research team comprises scientists from Loughborough University, Cambridge University and the State University of New York.
The termite under investigation (Macrotermes michaelseni) is a species common in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to provide an understanding of how homeostasis – the ability to keep conditions within the body regulated and constant – works in the mounds built by this termite. Interest within the scientific community (e.g. engineering, artificial intelligence) is becoming increasingly focused on how humans can learn from nature.
The nest is contained within the fully enclosed mound. The termites build the mound to stabilise the nest's temperature, moisture levels and respiratory gas balance.
Solutions to the problem are impressive and similar to the function of the lung of an animal. In a lung, air is driven in and out by the muscles of the ribs and diaphragm. Macrotermes mounds capture wind energy to drive air through the canals built into the mound. In both, the ventilation ensures the exchange of respiratory gases and heat, driven by muscles in the one case, and wind in the other. In fact, in physiological terms, the termites have evolved to outsource many of their homeostatic functions, such as thermo-regulation, respiration, moisture regulation, and even digestion, into the mound structure itself.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/
The above story is based on materials provided by Engineering And Physical Sciences Research Council. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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