The central hypothesis of BRACE is that concrete can be infused with self-repair capabilities typically found in living organisms, drawing inspiration from vascular systems found in humans and vast networks of filamentous fungi that can span acres of land similar in scale to concrete buildings. Such systems could provide a network of transportation for healing within the depths of the material to repair cracks before they reach the surface and before they cause failure.
DARPA has selected program performers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Battelle Memorial Institute to meet program goals. Each performer has proposed unique approaches to provide concrete with a network of "vasculature" integrated within the depths of the material, which can be used not only for crack repair but also for diagnosing the root causes of deterioration before they result in catastrophic damage. All teams will work toward operationalizing the vasculature, which requires applying and maintaining its function, developing novel testbeds, and predicting long-term performance through modeling.
"More than ever, we are seeing how our ability to understand and engineer biology can be leveraged for applications far beyond human health and disease, especially in the field of materials science," noted Dr. Matthew J. Pava, BRACE program manager. "BRACE will attempt to push the limits of what is possible for engineering biological technologies to safely function and preserve our legacy concrete, and in doing so, we likely will learn about new possibilities for engineering biology and materials that we have not yet conceived."
The 4.5-year research effort includes a Strategic Track for long-term solutions geared towards big, heavy structures such as missile silos and naval piers, and a Tactical Track for improving rapid airfield damage repair in expeditionary settings.
"Although BRACE is initially focused on military use-cases, if successful, technologies developed on BRACE eventually could have general utility for the massive amount of concrete that exists in civil infrastructure such as roads, highways, bridges, and buildings," added Pava.
BRACE performers will engage with U.S. government and defense stakeholders, as well as appropriate regulatory authorities. Safety is paramount, and all research will be subject to regular review by both an independent laboratory and regulatory agencies to ensure BRACE technologies do not pose a threat to human or structural health.
In addition, teams are required to collaborate with ethical, legal, and societal implications experts and ensure the research addresses any related concerns. Performers will be required to conform to regulatory requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before any of their technologies are used outside of the controlled laboratory environment, such as on test structures in the field during the final phase of the program.
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