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DARPA Researchers Bioengineering a New Class of Construction Materials: Will Homes Soon Repair Themselves?

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DARPA Vector Logo.epsMagic is a recurring thing in the 3D printing industry. It’s quite challenging—and exhilarating all at once—the first time you put one of the machines into action for yourself, watching a project go from start to finish. To see that you can decide on something you want, and then have it appear in front of you is startling, euphoria-inducing, and downright addicting. Add to that the sheer simplicity of how it all works, and the brain is further boggled. But none of this compares to the true magic of this technology—all emanating from human minds.

While it’s one thing to watch these machines create actual physical objects, seemingly out of thin air, from the warehouse to the workshop, it’s the continual flow of concepts we simply never considered that is staggering. Due to an infinite amount of possibilities available in digital design and 3D printing—and a ‘the sky is the limit’ attitude—our world is just on the cusp of changing in so many ways.

Many innovations that will change the way you lead your daily life are still in the proof of concept and preliminary manufacturing stages, but gaining steam—from the way cars are made to how potholes are fixed. From our food to and medications, you should expect many amazing improvements in the future, along with greater affordability.

While construction has been a bit slower to show itself as miraculous from within the 3D printing realm, we are seeing greater progress now there too, especially internationally. Dubai, in the midst of an enormous 3D printing initiative, has unveiled the first 3D printed office building, and in Italy, the first 3D printed village is truly underway. And while it’s predicted that soon many homes will be 3D printed with unprecedented speed and affordability, the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is taking the idea far beyond what most of us have ever considered, continuing on their path in studying 3D technologies.

On a mission to make homes that are the ultimate in affordable and offering self-sustainability, researchers at DARPA are certainly attempting to take things up a notch. Offering materials your contractor probably never offered you, such as bone, skin, bark, and coral, the idea is basically to build living constructions that can fix themselves.

With the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program, researchers are certainly throwing some futuristic concepts at us. Imagine this:

  • Chimneys that self-repair
  • Roofs capable of manipulating and controlling airflow
  • Driveways that clean up after themselves, absorbing such eyesores as oil stains
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Justin Gallivan, DARPA

And definitely putting a new spin on the smart home, what DARPA researchers see occurring in the homes of the future is intuitive infrastructures that respond to their homes through engineered biology, much like the 3D and 4D printed items we’ve begun reporting on that are able to adapt and change with their environment. Here, advanced construction materials will be morphing to handle issues that crop up in the home environment, with most of them preventing damage to the home and yard, and eliminating a lot of headaches for the homeowner.

“The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” the program’s manager, Justin Gallivan, said.

“Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

The actual, stated mission of the ELM program by the researchers is as follows:

“The Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program will develop tools and methods to enable the engineering of structural features into cellular systems that function as living materials, thereby opening a new design space for construction technology.”

“The ELM program seeks to deliver technologies that will enable the addition of living structural materials into our built environments. Such novel materials would reduce the energy and financial burden associated with the manufacture and transport of materials to construction sites, since they will be able to grow on-site from natural feedstocks. Furthermore, as they will contain elements that are alive, the resulting structures will be endowed with the ability to self-repair and respond appropriately to changes in the environment.”

What they are hoping to create essentially is a new class of materials, building on ones that already exist, but as DARPA points out in a recent blog, these materials are generally ‘rendered inert’ as they are manufactured. Likening this to bioprinting, which makes sense, these materials would be made through the use of existing high-tech processes to make hybrid materials serving to hold scaffolds for sustaining the engineered and living cells.


Just imagine having a home made out of living materials, able to sustain itself. [Image: DARPA]

The ultimate goal for the ELM program, however, is to actually make structural properties that can be directly integrated into different biological systems without a need for scaffolds or for materials to require ‘external development cues.’ The researchers imagine that in the future this will indeed be possible, with organisms assuming a required and adapted structure on its own. First though, DARPA researchers are seeking a deeper understanding of the pathways and inner workings of multicellular systems.

Your head may be spinning just a little trying to imagine all this—not to mention living in such a scenario—but many do have faith in DARPA when it comes to producing what seems a bit outrageous at first; and of course, this is how many of the best ideas start out—especially in the 3D industry.

DARPA is hosting a Proposers Day on August 26, 2016, in Arlington, VA to further clarify the program vision and answer questions from potential proposers. Advance registration is required. And if you’d like to read more about the program, its mission, and hopes for further potential funding, you can find out more here. Discuss further in the DARPA to Bioengineer Homes forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: DARPAnews.com.au]

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