DARPA seeks building materials that can respond to change and heal after damage

What if we could grow houses and other structures to suit specific purposes, using local resources? And what if those buildings were capable of self-healing after damage? How would we do that? Those are some of the questions the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is hoping to answer in its request for proposals for the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program.

DARPA is the U.S. Department of Defense’s answer to Google X Labs and Tony Stark’s workshop, or more likely an inspiration for each. The agency is serious about all of its projects, each of which starts with a big problem or challenge that needs an answer, a solution, or a new approach. DARPA’s ELM program calls on bleeding edge technology and, as usual for those who accept the assignments, if the technology isn’t there or not yet advanced enough, the agency calls in experts to create what’s needed.

The ELM project addresses two problems common to construction: transporting materials to the building or construction site and maintaining the structures and repairing damage from specific events or from the wear and tear of usage and time. The goal is to combine the structural properties of conventional building materials with characteristics of living systems. It’s all about engineered biology.

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

ELM wants to merge the features of inert biological materials such as wood with the structural potential of 3D-printed tissues and organs built on biological scaffolding that sustains the living cells and allows them to grow to suit specific purposes. The result DARPA is seeking is to add to the mix is hybrid materials that aren’t alive themselves, but support and provide structure for the living cells. That’s stage one.

The longer game for the ELM program is to be able to engineer structural features and properties into the genomes  of living, biological systems. When that wide threshold is crossed, the end game will be a new perspective on commercial real estate’s concept of “build-to-suit” — in this case it will be “grow-to-suit.”

Examples DARPA suggests are roofs that control airflow in a structure by breathing; chimneys that heal after smoke damage; and driveways, roads, or runways that literally eat oil spills.

With sufficient development, the extension of the Engineered Living Materials program would be the ability to ship materials, perhaps in drums or crates, that could be placed at destination sites and quickly grow into the desired shapes and sizes using locally available resources to sustain growth and maintain life.

If you’re sufficiently intrigued by the Engineered Living Materials program to want to be part of it, more information is available in a Broad Agency Announcement. DARPA is also hosting a Proposers Day on August 26 in Arlington, Virginia, to “further clarify the program vision and answer questions from potential proposers.” Advanced registration is required.

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