Nature’s engineers

Nature’s engineers

In some ways, animals and insects do things better than humans. Having existed for thousands, or even millions of years, these creatures have mastered their surroundings. As a result, scientists are learning or taking inspiration from them when designing new materials or equipment. This is biomimicry, the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes.

In the design of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, there are insects that do it better than engineers. Their homes, termite mounds, are perfect examples of natural HVAC systems. A research published in Frontiers for Materials revealed how termite mounds can teach humans how to build comfortable interior climates that don’t utilize large amounts of energy. Currently, 25% of the energy produced worldwide is used to heat and cool homes and commercial buildings.

Termites construct mounds that are composed of a series of tunnels for air flow. Since it is a closed structure, the insects must maintain adequate levels of temperature, moisture and respiratory gases like carbon dioxide inside their mounds to survive. Termite mounds in the Philippines are just several inches above ground. However, some species of termites build mounds reaching 26 feet in height, making their towers the world’s largest animal-built structures. Thus, proper ventilation is important.

Researchers studied the mounds of a species of termites from Namibia called Macrotermes michaelseni. They found that the intricate network of interconnected tunnels promotes moisture regulation and gas exchange. The layout of these insect-made structures can intercept wind around the mound to create turbulence inside, which can power ventilation and control the interior climate.

Engineer’s and architects are looking at termite mounds to design affordable, lower-carbon, non-polluting systems to cool and heat buildings. The most famous example is the Eastgate Building in Zimbabwe, which uses natural ventilation and minimal heating systems to consume lower energy.

When Mick Pearce, a Zimbabwean architect, was commissioned to design the Eastgate Center, he spotted some termite mounds on a golf course, dappled with tiny holes. Pearce took that idea to his team of engineers, and they incorporated the termite mound design into the new building. Pearce used similar termite chimney-inspired designs in a Melbourne office building and a dining hall in Shenzhen, China.

Other than being nature’s HVAC engineers, termites are also soil engineers. By chewing on dead plants, nutrients are returned into the soil. They burrow tirelessly and aerate the soil, allowing rainwater to trickle in and enable the mixing of nutrients. Their sticky excretions hold the soil together, preventing soil erosion.

Termites are called "silent destroyers" because they can damage or destroy houses. However, their ability to chew through wood is important in nature. They are the leading decomposers of trees and other plants. Without them, forests would have piles of trees and plants, which would suffocate other plants.


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