Aug 10, 2016 | By Alec

Out of all the different 3D printing technologies, 3D bioprinting is perhaps the most extraordinary one – and not just because its ‘filament’ consists of living cells. For while 3D printed plastic takes on its final shape immediately, 3D bioprinted materials have been designed to grow into bigger, functional tissues. While hitherto only limited to very small lab projects, we might actually be seeing this employed on a larger scale. For DARPA has just launched the Engineered Living Material (ELM) program, which seeks to bring the same living, growing material principles to the construction industry.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is, of course, one of the biggest government-backed drivers of innovation in the US. The ELM program actually fits in a long line of strange programs launched by DARPA, which all seem to be impossible but are based on very limited concepts that are blown up into something gigantic. As a result, DARPA is also no stranger to 3D printing; just a few months ago, they launched an initiative in which private designers could submit plans for 3D printed weaponry – to enable the US to better prepare against terrorist threats.

But DARPA’s ELM project certainly stands out for its focus on the construction industry. As they reveal, the program has been set up to deal with the two common financial challenges faced by everyone in that industry: transporting building materials and adequately repairing damages. Indeed, depending on where you want to build something, transportation costs can take up a huge segment of the final bill, while repair projects are often absolutely packed with hidden expenses.

DARPA’s answer? Engineered biology. “Living biological materials—bone, skin, bark, and coral, for example—have attributes that provide advantages over the non-living materials people build with, in that they can be grown where needed, self-repair when damaged, and respond to changes in their surroundings,” they argue. By including those materials into manmade structures, huge benefits are brought the table. Among others, it could realize smart infrastructure that responds to its surroundings and weather conditions.

The ELM program, in a nutshell, is tasked with developing the materials that are suitable for these applications – that have both the necessary structural properties and the desired attributes of living systems. “The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM program manager Justin Gallivan. “Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

To realize this remarkable goal, ELM will have to merge the features of inert building materials – wood, concrete and so on – with the growing power of 3D printed tissues and biological scaffolding. Specifically, they are envisioning a core set of materials that are not actually alive themselves but act as scaffolding for undetermined living materials. Their features will be taken from the genomes of living, biological structures and could, on paper, be adjusted to suit any building purpose.

While it will likely take years to develop, DARPA is already dreaming big. Just as 3D bioprinted cell structures should enable blood flow, these living building material should enable functions such as breathing, regeneration and even the consumption of waste such as moss, or oil spills on roads. What’s more, the materials should become transportable in small quantities and grown into the desired shapes on site. That, of course, could greatly decrease transportation costs.

But as 3D bioprinting can already realize specific shapes, sizes and functions using inexpensive feedstocks, DARPA is certainly not just fantasizing about the impossible. What’s more, wood and other building materials also start off as living biological materials. If those features can be maintained and merged with other materials, scalable construction applications can definitely be realized. “[But] achieving this goal will require significant breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of developmental pathways and how those pathways direct the three-dimensional development of multicellular systems,” DARPA admits.

While this is thus certainly not something that is right around the corner, the construction industry is definitely facing some changes – including the 3D printing of concrete and the integration of the Internet of Things into buildings. If you’re interested in the ELM project, you can also attend a Proposers Day on August 26 in Arlington, Virginia, intended to “further clarify the program vision and answer questions from potential proposers.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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GoodOne wrote at 8/12/2016 10:37:39 PM:

Alas, another agency has already developed ELM's for construction: i believe they're called "trees".

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