The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Self-Healing Concrete and Other 21st-Century Miracles

The BBC brings news of an exciting new construction technology: Self-reparing concrete. By placing limestone-producing bacteria within the mixture used to create concrete, scientists are developing a new, more durable form with the ability to self-repair its own cracks. Considering that concrete is the most common building material in the world, this is no small matter. The details are fascinating:

Bacterial spores and the nutrients they will need to feed on are added as granules into the concrete mix. But water is the missing ingredient required for the microbes to grow.

So the spores remain dormant until rainwater works its way into the cracks and activates them. The harmless bacteria – belonging to the Bacillus genus – then feed on the nutrients to produce limestone.

The bacterial food incorporated into the healing agent is calcium lactate – a component of milk. The microbes used in the granules are able to tolerate the highly alkaline environment of the concrete.

The use of microbes to create self-healing concrete may not look like a big deal in the overall march of progress, but it points to one of the seminal developments of the 21st century: The integration of biology with manufacturing.

Over the past few decades, we have developed a greater understanding of biological processes, and significantly enhanced our ability to manipulate genes. (Of course human beings were breeding and cross breeding animals and plants for thousands of years before Gregor Mendel; today’s genetic manipulation is a faster and more focused way of doing something people have been doing since the Stone Age.) The new techniques give human beings new opportunities to break down the distinction between the natural and the industrial worlds. Gene-hacked plants and microbes will produce new drugs and other valuable chemicals and some of the most productive factories in the future could be vats of algae and fields of genetically modified crops.

And our understanding of biology continues to move forward by leaps and bounds. The new knowledge and the new capabilities unleashed by the torrent of discoveries in biology are likely to transform the world even more profoundly than the advances in chemistry of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Only rarely do scientific revolutions become headline stories. It is usually little stories like this one, a breakthrough promising longer lived concrete, that show us where the world is heading. But put the biological revolution together with the continuing revolution in information technology, and it seems inevitable that the 21st century will see more scientific progress and more social change than any of its predecessors.

Via Meadia‘s advice: keep your seatbelts fastened. We are in for a bumpy ride.

Published on October 31, 2012 5:09 pm