Swiss researchers explore biodegradable bridges

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich are conducting interdisciplinary research into the development of materials that open the door to organic infrastructures with closed material cycles, such as bridges made of plant fibers.

“We’re seeing a fusion of materials science and biology,” says Mark Tibbitt, a professor at the Macromolecular Engineering Laboratory at ETH Zurich.

Tibbitt is one of a number of researchers from various disciplines at ETH Zurich and elsewhere who are engaged in a dialogue on the development of materials that can be used to build infrastructures that respond to their environment. Some research groups are working on concrete additives that can monitor their own condition autonomously or even seal small cracks on their own. Other groups are experimenting with bacteria that form lime when exposed to rainwater and other moisture.

The researchers at ETH Zurich are particularly interested in developing organic infrastructures with “closed material cycles, such as bridges made of remarkably robust plant fiber”. According to an ETH Zurich article, these could repair themselves when damaged and then break down into individual compostable components at the end of their service life.

“ETH Zurich is the perfect hub of this venture because it has so much expertise in all the key areas,” says Tibbitt. He and his colleagues are organizing a symposium for spring 2020 where experts can discuss these matters. Their goal is to define research questions and then launch the first transdisciplinary projects.

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