Researchers from Michigan State and Purdue are collaborating to develop a new variety of tough, sustainable, self-healing lumber loaded with microbes. Michigan State University, together with Purdue University, is developing a new building material that sounds like something straight out of a comic book. It will be more durable than steel, self-healing, and remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. As unbelievable, surprising or disturbing as it may sound, neither supernatural nor alien technology will be used in this new study. Instead, the organic powers found in wood and bacteria will be harnessed.
The work team received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, to develop "live" wood, a new idea that takes advantage of microbes injected into wood. Part of the competitive initiative Harnessing Emissions into Structures Taking Inputs from the Atmosphere (HESTIA), this grant is one of 18 grants to organizations across the United States.
According to Jinxing Li, an assistant professor at the College of Engineering and the Institute of Quantitative Health Science and Engineering (IQ), “we know that wood naturally decomposes as a result of microbial activities.” Li is the principal investigator of the project at MSU.
But on the other side are bacteria that can produce robust biomaterials,” he added. “Then we started wondering if we could add certain bacteria to wood to strengthen it rather than weaken it.
"We use microbial qualities that are already present in nature," said Tian Li, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, the project's lead scientist.
Wood is a porous substance by nature, and its pores often trap elements that are bad for timber's use as a building material. For example, pores can trap moisture or air, which can accelerate deterioration or promote flammability.
The team's goal is to introduce microbes into the porous web of wood, allow them to consume atmospheric carbon dioxide, and then convert that carbon dioxide into robust biomaterials that will close the gaps.
Tian Li, if you fill this empty space with wood, you will have better mechanical strength and flame resistance.
Compounds produced by microbes can help fill the pores as well as repair the damage the wood has suffered over its lifetime.
Also, according to Jinxing Li, the procedure itself uses carbon dioxide, so we will produce stronger wood while emitting less greenhouse gases.
Projects like these in the HESTIA program are helping the United States achieve its goal of becoming an emission-free country by 2050. The MSU 2030 strategy plan includes addressing climate change as one of its main initiatives.
A new partnership was born between MSU and Purdue when Jinxing Li and Tian Li ran into each other during interviews while looking for a job. This is how they continued to share ideas with one another after securing their professorship positions. The researchers created this influential ARPA-E proposal by building on previously unfunded concepts and connecting with new colleagues at their new university.
Wood itself, bacteria and fungi make up the three constituent parts of living wood. While a student at MSU, Jinxing Li met Bige Deniz Ünlütürk, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Engineering, Gregory Bonito, an associate professor in the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Gemma Reguera, a professor in the Faculty of Natural Sciences.
Gemma and Greg, the best minds in microbiology. Greg focuses on utilizing the fungal network to drive wood's biological modification, while Gemma focuses on selecting and creating the best bacteria for carbon capture and wood remediation. According to Jinxing Li, Bige is an expert at using computer simulations to guide our design. In addition, Purdue has experts in wood, structure and lifecycle analysis.
Jinxing Li will create “bio inks” that will be incorporated into wood and contain bacteria.
“My goal is to create a liquid or ink with the best chemical and physical properties to get as far into the pores of the wood as possible,” he said. In addition, “we can apply synthetic biology to increase bacterial production and regulate the nutrients in the ink.”
Reguera, who has just joined the College of Natural Sciences' executive team as vice dean, said of the project, "It's a wonderful marriage of biology and engineering disciplines to build something truly unique and transformative." “I am excited to work with my distinguished colleagues at MSU and Purdue. We were all very eager to work together; this is the essence of cooperation.
Reguera and Li agree that it may seem absurd or unrealistic for a "living" wood to outperform more traditional building materials. But it is very important to keep in mind that the group is trying to coordinate and optimize what nature has already accomplished to better meet people's needs.
Microbes can already collect carbon dioxide and produce strong materials. There are even claims that some trees do this naturally. According to Reguera, “microbial activity produces biomaterials that harden the wood and protect the wood from mechanical stress.”
“It also gives the wood a really stylish black hue because of the minerals in it. In fact, according to Jinxing Li, wood is used in furniture and artwork, especially in China and Japan. We were excited to learn that such a phenomenon actually occurred in nature, which increased our odds of success.
Fu Zhao, an associate professor in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, and Eva Haviarova, a professor in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, are also members of the Purdue team.
Reguera added: “It was very enjoyable working as a team. “We're really excited about this idea and the potential for such creative knowledge advancement.