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US university to lead new biogeotechnical engineering research centre

Arizona State University (ASU) has announced that it is to lead a new National Science Foundation engineering research centre to expand the emerging field of biogeotechnical engineering.

The Centre for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (CBBG) will focus on “nature-compatible” approaches to boosting resiliency in infrastructure and improving environmental protection.

CBBG researchers will also look at ecological restoration methods and developing ways to make infrastructure construction and natural resource development operations more sustainable.

ASU will partner with the Georgia Institute of Technology, New Mexico State University and the University of California, Davis.

According to ASU, CBBG’s researchers will try to either employ or emulate natural processes in developing innovative methods and technologies for engineering geotechnical systems.

“In billions of years of evolution, nature has come up with some very elegant solutions to the problems we want to solve,” said CBBG director and ASU Regents’ professor Edward Kavazanjian. “By employing or mimicking these natural processes we should be able to devise some of our own elegant solutions.”

Much of CBBG’s work will concentrate on developing bio-based methods of strengthening soils as a way to produce more solid ground for building foundations and to prevent erosion that threatens human health, the environment and infrastructure systems.

Researchers, for instance, will explore the use of microbial organisms to help stabilise soils. Certain kinds of microbes produce an enzyme that can cause calcium carbonate to precipitate in porous soils, thereby hardening the ground, making it more resistant to erosion, and providing a stronger foundation for construction.

Other efforts will involve attempting to figure out how to equal the performance of trees in their natural ability to stabilise soil against erosion and to provide support against wind and other loads through their root systems.

“The best man-made soil-reinforcing elements and foundation systems we have developed are not as efficient as trees at stabilising soil. We want to be able to design soil-reinforcement and foundation systems that work like tree root systems,” Kavazanjian said.

Researchers will also seek to devise technologies that match some of the subterranean earth-moving and stabilisation capabilities of burrowing insects and small mammals.

“Ants are a hundred times more energy-efficient at tunnelling than our current technology. They excavate very carefully and their tunnels almost never collapse,” Kavazanjian said. “If we could do what ants can do, we could make underground mining much safer.”

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