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Termites can do it, why can’t we? NMSU research follows nature’s example

Lakshmi Reddi has always admired nature. Now, the dean of the New Mexico State University College of Engineering is trying to understand biological systems to engineer energy efficient methods for cooling and heating modern structures, with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation.


Man sitting at desk
Lakshmi N. Reddi is dean of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University. (NMSU photo by Victoria Palombit)

The lowly termite has the amazing ability to build soil-based towers that maintain steady internal temperatures of 86 degrees.

“Why do humans need to use so much energy to keep our dwellings at steady, comfortable temperatures when termites can build a dwelling that can maintain an exact temperature regardless of the outside temperatures?” asked Reddi.

Likewise, the human body is perfectly designed to maintain a healthy blood core temperature of 98.6 degrees. Through an intricate thermoregulatory “piping” system comprising millions of veins and arteries and two types of glands, eccrine and apocrine, humans sweat or shiver in response to changing temperature.

Camels can lose up to 30 percent of their body weight, and humans up to 10 percent, using dehydration for cooling.

“We are seeking to develop techniques that mimic what termites do and what the human body automatically does in constructing modern structures,” said Reddi. “This approach questions the very basics of construction materials.”

Bio-inspiration is an emerging discipline in which materials and processes are engineered to mimic the highest evolution of biological systems – until recently, an approach little explored in construction, geotechnical and structural engineering research. It’s a paradigm shift from what can be extracted from the natural world to what can be learned from it.

“What clues does the natural world hold that can be integrated and imitated in the human-built world to minimize temperature fluctuations with minimal or no external energy requirements?” asked Reddi.

Along with four interdisciplinary researchers from the U.S., U.K., France and Korea, Reddi has been investigating the feasibility and developing the scope of this new research direction for nearly five years with funding from the National Science Foundation. The group is now preparing a major proposal for the next step to pursue the practical aspects of the research – to design and conduct laboratory and field tests of their theories on a large scale.

The future of this research will require the integration of several disciplines, such as the biological sciences, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science and medicine. It will also address two important issues. First, supporting growing efforts to identify sustainable practices of engineering and use of earth- and plant-based natural materials in construction. Second, it addresses the use of energy and a path toward energy efficiency.

The study of these biological systems provides inspiration and evolutionary knowledge to develop stabilized earth construction using soils and plant-based fibers. Earthen homes using plant fibers or covered with palm and cocoanut leaves have been used since prehistoric times and are still used throughout the world, including the beloved adobe structures in the Southwestern United States. However scientific studies providing basis for the use of plant materials in stabilized soils are very few.

Bio-inspired engineering is emerging and is making the NMSU College of Engineering a leader in this research area through the work of Reddi and other investigators including Paola Bandini, NMSU associate professor in civil engineering.

Bandini and her colleagues have been working as part of the National Science Foundation funded Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics, since 2015.

Among the projects currently being conducted at NMSU through CBBG are:
– Development of a sustainable and cost-effective solution to remediate damaged soils with liquid organic fertilizer made from organic waste.
– Study of the earthworm’s ability to move underground in any direction as inspiration for soil testing to investigate below existing structures that may need retrofitting for earthquake damage mitigation.
– Use of various natural strong fibers for the reinforcement of adobe masonry against natural hazards such as seismic activity or strong winds.

Said Reddi, “We want to use the systems already perfected in nature through thousands of years of evolution in the built-world.”