Researchers to Investigate Living Infrastructure
The research of Eleni Chatzi, a professor of structural mechanics at ETH Zurich, seems like something from a sci-fi novel: In one section of her research, Chatzi aims to use seeds to grow bridges. The rest of these structures would also be completely composed of organic material.
Chatzi specializes in getting a read on the health of bridges, dams, wind turbines, aircraft and vehicles by using sensors, algorithms and machine learning.
Living Bridge Research
According to ETH Zurich, currently engineers have to externally install sensors in order to read for tension, deformation, acceleration and other factors, or incorporate the sensors into the design itself. Chatzi noted that this is usually both disruptive, as well as an additional expense.
“That’s why we’d like to develop infrastructures and machines with intrinsic intelligence that are aware of their condition even without externally mounted sensors,” the professor said.
Though there have been other ventures into researching what is being billed as “self-sensing infrastructure” and a polymer that can repair itself when exposed to carbon dioxide in the air, Chatzi and Mark Tibbitt, a professor at the Macromolecular Engineering Laboratory at ETH Zurich, are working on different scales for similar concepts: namely focusing on materials that can heal themselves. This also means fostering discussion about self-healing materials and infrastructure.
“The fascinating thing about living organisms is that they perceive their environment, react to it and even heal themselves when injured. We want to instill these qualities in materials and infrastructures,” said Tibbitt.
Currently, a workshop and symposium are currently slated to take place in the spring to further discuss these topics. Many questions remain, including how to ensure infrastructure safety when a bridge can develop a life of its own. There are also concerns over how humans and animals will react to an engineered environment comprised of living organisms.
“ETH Zurich is the perfect hub for this venture because it has so much expertise in all the key areas,” said Tibbitt.