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Termites could hold the key to self-sufficient buildings


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."

| EurekAlert!
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