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11 November 2004 PR 04/100(a)

World first for Loughborough University-led termites research project

For the first time ever a multinational research team, led by Loughborough University, has been able to capture images of inside the spectacular Macrotermes michealseni termite mounds of southern Africa.

The team of biologists and engineers have just spent two weeks in Namibia, Africa, completing the first phase of a three-year project aimed at scanning and understanding the structure and function of the mounds - and they have already unearthed some exciting results.

The termite-built towers, standing as high as five metres, epitomise structures that have been optimised for the harsh surroundings they are located in, displaying incredible feats of self-regulation to provide a constant living environment in which the termites can thrive. These wind driven machines, that ventilate the termites’ colony, breathe at about the same rate as a cow and need to be large to continually refresh the air to the subterranean nests.

Understanding how the minuscule termites build these complex mounds may enable engineers and architects to develop new kinds of self-sufficient human habitats, which are able to tap environmental energy like wind and solar power to control their own climate. The biologists also hope that clues to fundamental questions about the evolution of organisms will emerge from this work.

During their first visit to Africa the team used specially formulated gypsum and casting methods to fill the internal ducts and channels above the nest, that form the respiratory system. After three days of washing the mound material away, they were able to reveal stunning details of the architecture of the internal ventilation system and demonstrate how the function may be customized and optimised for the inhabitants. The team of entomologists, biologists and physiologists present also made discoveries in understanding how simple building behaviours of termites, working cooperatively, can produce complex ventilation systems. The initial research has also given new insights into how termites in arid savannas cope with heat stress and scarcity of water.

During their next visit the team will begin digitally scanning the mounds, which will allow their three dimensional architecture to be mapped in a level of detail never achieved before. Using both the mound castings and computer modelling the researchers hope to unravel the mystery of how the structures are made.

Dr Rupert Soar of Loughborough University’s Wolfson School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering is leading the project. He said: “This study is unique in its cross-disciplinary approach, bringing in expertise in construction engineering, simulation, process engineering, physics, physiology, ecology and natural history. It seeks to understand how buildings may be customized for their environment for applications ranging from residential dwellings to self-sustaining, deployable, buildings for space. And judging by what we have found so far, this project could help us to develop some of the most exciting construction techniques ever.”

The research is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and carried out with the cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development at the Omatjenne Agricultural Research Station near Otjiwarongo, Namibia.

Ends

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Notes to editors

  1. Dr Rupert Soar is available for interviews. To arrange a meeting please contact the University’s Publicity Office.
  2. Photographs and film footage of the team’s recent work in Africa is available upon request.
  3. For further information about the research project visit the TERMES web site: http://www.sandkings.co.uk
  4. A press release issued at the start of the research project can be found at: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/service/publicity/news-releases/2004/04_100-termites.html
  5. The three year research initiative, ‘3D Mapping of Macrotermes michaelseni Mounds and Simulation of Their Homeostatic Functions – Lessons for Human Construction’, will receive EPSRC funding of just over £421,000.
  6. The termite under investigation (Macrotermes michaelseni) is a species common in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to provide an understanding of how homeostasis – the ability to keep conditions within the body regulated and constant – works in the mounds built by this termite. Interest within the scientific community (e.g. engineering, artificial intelligence) is becoming increasingly focused on how humans can learn from nature.
  7. The nest is contained within the fully enclosed mound. The termites build the mound to stabilise the nest’s temperature, moisture levels and respiratory gas balance.
  8. Solutions to the problem are impressive and similar to the function of the lung of an animal. In a lung, air is driven in and out by the muscles of the ribs and diaphragm. Macrotermes mounds capture wind energy to drive air through the canals built into the mound. In both, the ventilation ensures the exchange of respiratory gases and heat, driven by muscles in the one case, and wind in the other. In fact, in physiological terms, the termites have evolved to outsource many of their homeostatic functions, such as thermo-regulation, respiration, moisture regulation, and even digestion, into the mound structure itself.
  9. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/
  10. Loughborough has an established reputation for excellence in teaching and research, strong links with industry, and unrivalled sporting achievement. Assessments of teaching quality by the Quality Assurance Agency place Loughborough in the top flight of UK universities, and industry highlights Loughborough in its top five for graduate recruitment. Around 45% of the University’s income is for research. The University has been awarded four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes: for its collaboration with aerospace and automotive companies such as BAE Systems, Ford and Rolls Royce; for its work in developing countries; for pioneering research in optical engineering; and for its world-leading role in sports research, education and development.

 

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