Construction News

Mon May 17 2021

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The woman who turns soil into rock

10 Oct 17 BAM Nuttall is backing a university research programme into the use of bacteria to solidify soil instead of cement.

Prof Rebecca Lunn
Prof Rebecca Lunn

Rebecca Lunn of the University of Strathclyde has extended an established partnership with BAM Nuttall by taking up the five-year post of BAM Nuttall / RAEng research chair in biomineral technologies for ground engineering.

Professor Lunn will scale up microbially induced calcite precipitation (MICP), reducing the use of cement in construction and developing low-carbon alternatives. 

The MICP process uses naturally-occurring bacteria and urea solutions injected into soil to changes its properties, making the soil stronger and more stable. The bacteria precipitate calcite, a hard mineral that binds together particles in the soil, turning loose soil into instant rock. This technology can be used to build and repair infrastructure, minimising carbon-intensive use of cement.

“We want to develop sustainable earth infrastructure that harness the biomineral technology to improve the properties of the existing soil; providing a durable, non-destructive alternative to traditional carbon-intensive construction methods,” said Professor Lunn. “Having collaborated with BAM Nuttall over a number of years, we share a common understanding of how to turn early-stage research into innovative construction techniques. BAM’s knowledge and experience in the infrastructure sector will allow this technology to gain early acceptance and broaden the range of applications quickly.”

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A few small-scale field trials and industrial applications of the technique have been completed around the world but none have yet been done in the UK.

BAM Nuttall director Alasdair Henderson said: “Construction has a mixed record in research and development, something that BAM has worked hard to change over recent years. We know that successfully implementing innovations like MICP leads directly to improved productivity, lower carbon demand and greater economic growth, with a beneficial effect across society.”

The research will build on Professor Lunn’s previous work applying MICP to seal rock fractures during the construction of geological disposal facilities for nuclear waste. Her group has developed the technology for sealing individual fractures within the laboratory at the 1-2 metre scale. In partnership with BAM Nuttall, the research chair position will allow progression from these laboratory tests to field trials for rock fracture sealing.

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