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Updated: November 18, 2010 16:38 IST

‘Smart structures’ that termites construct

D. Murali
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You may hate termites but they can offer you a lesson or two on construction. This is highlighted by Peter Miller in ‘Smart Swarm’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com), through a whole chapter on termites running to about fifty pages.

Studying the termite mounds, which have evolved over millions of years, the author finds them to be devices to capture wind to ventilate the colony, conveying carbon dioxide and water to the mound surface, through tiny ‘egress tunnels,’ and picking up oxygen to convey to the nest for the termites and fungi to breathe. The whole termite mound isn’t just a shelter for the insects; it’s more like a giant lung, consuming as much oxygen as a goat or a small cow, he informs.

Distributed problem-solving

For starters, a ‘smart swarm’ is a group of individuals who respond to one another and to their environment in ways that give them the power, as a group, to cope with uncertainty, complexity, and change, the author defines.

If you wonder how smart swarms work, the book’s answer comes from research into the lives of social insects such as ants, bees, and termites, which distribute problem-solving among many individuals, each of which is following simple instructions but none of which sees the big picture.

“Nobody’s in charge. Nobody’s telling anybody else what to do. Instead, individuals in such groups interact with one another in countless ways until a pattern emerges – a tipping point of motion or meaning – that enables a colony of ants to find the nearest pile of seeds, or a school of herring to dodge a hungry seal.”

Complex shelters

Again, group smartness is what enables a whole group of termite workers to create a complex shelter for the colony. A study of the complexity documented in the book is of J. Scott Turner, a biologist from the State University of New York in Syracuse, and Rupert Soar, a former engineer at Loughborough University in the UK, who undertook a project to make a digital 3-D model of a termite mound in Namibia, using 2,500 slices of scan images.

The network of tunnels and air passages inside the mound was intricate and dense, as complex as a Chinese puzzle ball carved from ivory, the researchers found. “Filigreed channels in the base rose toward a point halfway up the mound, where a kind of spire began. Within the spire, two or three large vertical channels rose all the way to the top.”

The structures were impressive, but what really surprised Turner and Soar was the study’s finding on how termites use wind energy in an entirely new way, reports Miller.

Energy-efficient buildings

Amazed by the ‘smart structures’ that termites construct, Soar speaks of lessons for creating energy-efficient buildings for people. He suggests that organic-like designs can be imprinted into walls to change them from being a solid piece of masonry to being ‘permeated by something akin to channels that you’d find in blood vessels.’

With new methods for printing complex three-dimensional structures, it is now possible to replicate in buildings the termites’ functional tricks with turbulent winds, assures Soar.

So, rather than solid brick or concrete, we are talking about shapes and contours to act like membranes and achieve the same regulation by taking advantage of energy gradients, without using electricity, Miller underlines.

“Instead of being an impermeable barrier between outside and inside, the wall could become a device for managing the flows of matter and energy that control the climates inside our buildings – all through the clever use of wind, which Turner and Soar hadn’t realised was possible until the termites showed them how.”

Recommended addition to ‘smart’ bookshelves.

**

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