Battelle Working on Self-Repairing Concrete for DARPA

Earlier this year, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that Battelle is among the participants in a four year program designed to prevent the early deterioration of concrete in civilian and Department of Defense structures.

Concrete is a major feature of the built environment—the most used material worldwide. It’s strong, durable, easily formed into any desired shape and can readily be made from materials available in most locations. Now, researchers at Battelle and collaborators will develop advanced technologies that can transport self-healing capabilities within the depths of existing concrete under the Bio-inspired Restoration of Aged Concrete Edifices (BRACE) program.

Much of the United States’ aging infrastructure is concrete, and it’s crumbling from the inside out. Popular due to its added strength, steel-reinforced concrete deteriorates internally first as the rebar rusts. Because the problem occurs within a concrete structure and is not visible from exterior visual inspection, it’s challenging to even know if intervention is needed. By the time surface cracks occur, significant damage has occurred, and structural integrity may be compromised. 

The BRACE program research intends to prolong the serviceability of structures and airfield pavements by integrating a self-repair capability into existing concrete. Despite its many beneficial qualities and ubiquity, concrete is difficult to repair. Its durability also makes it hard to penetrate with any healing agents and replacement is often impractical or impossible.

Battelle is focused on the development of technologies that use biology to impart long-lasting, self-healing capabilities to concrete to repair cracks early and prevent their propagation. Researchers will use an approach that mimics the vascular networks that biology produces in nature to produce fibers with engineered bacteria that in turn produce strong structural materials such as spider silk or cellulose within the concrete structure. As the tiny microbes branch out into the concrete, they’ll fill microscopic cracks and restore the mineral structure that holds concrete together before cracks spread.

Executing this project involves interdisciplinary expertise, one of Battelle’s strong suits. Scientific fields including molecular biology, microbiology, material science and civil engineering will combine individuals from several different teams within Battelle. Materials Scientist Heather Luckarift from the Advanced Mission Solutions business line is the principal investigator on the project, and Biologists Kate Kucharzyk and Fadime Kara Murdoch from the CBRNE business line serve as co-principal investigators. Fadime Kara Murdoch and Chemical Engineer Rachel Krebs are the technical area leads for creating the biological solutions and integrating the materials approaches, respectively. 

Battelle also has several partners on this project: South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which brings expertise in interfacing civil engineering with biology, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University, which are contributing a process for making sturdy structures by packing fibers with concrete and gravel. 

“In the civil engineering world, biology is usually seen as a bad thing as it causes mold, corrosion and other problems,” said Luckarift. “I’m excited to demonstrate that biology can be applied as the solution to critical infrastructure challenges too.”

Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited

This material is based upon work supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under Contract No. 140D0423C0021. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency 

June 21, 2023
Battelle Insider
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