Engineering research using bacteria to solidify soil is set to reduce the use of cements in construction, unlocking low-carbon alternatives for industry.

Professor Rebecca Lunn MBE of the University of Strathclyde has taken up the post of BAM Nuttall / RAEng Research Chair in Biomineral Technologies for Ground Engineering, a five-year post that will examine and scale up microbially induced calcite precipitation (MICP) from laboratory tests to a practical industry solution.

The MICP process uses naturally-occurring bacteria and urea solutions injected into soil to change 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 an intact rock. This technology can be used to build and repair infrastructure, minimising carbon-intensive use of cement.

Globally, a few small-scale field trials and industrial applications of the technique have been completed, however, such activities are rare and none have been conducted in the UK to-date. Wider industrial application depends on demonstrating that in-situ injection into naturally heterogeneous on-site soils can produce a reliable, uniform construction material with the desired strength and drainage characteristics.

Professor Lunn’s research, extending her well-established partnership with BAM Nuttall, will look at how to develop the technology into a full commercial solution. To build confidence in the industry, she will examine ways to create a sufficiently homogenous and hard material by deploying the technology at a site scale, and subsequently excavating and testing the resulting soils/rocks. She aims to determine how many biomineral soil treatments are required to achieve a given strength, to design optimal pumping strategies for large-scale soil treatment and to explore the commercial applications for which the technology could be environmentally and financially beneficial.

Professor Lunn said: “We want to develop sustainable earth infrastructure, such as flood embankments and coastal defences, that harness this biomineral technology to improve the properties of the existing soil; providing a durable, non-destructive alternative to traditional carbon-intensive construction methods. 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.”

BAM Nuttall Director Alasdair Henderson added: “We’re absolutely delighted that Professor Lunn will be taking up the BAM Nuttall / RAEng Research Chair. Construction has a mixed record in research and development, something that our business 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 also 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 successfully 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.

Professor Lunn says: “As well as testing and building confidence in the technology itself, I’ll be using my time in this Research Chair to tackle the challenges related to scaling it up for industrial use. For example, how do you grow and transport sufficient bacteria? How do you implement the technology on site without requiring civil engineers to become microbiologists? With the support of BAM Nuttall and the Royal Academy of Engineering, I will be solving these engineering challenges and developing a low-carbon solution that can make a real difference in industry.”

Notes for editors

  1. Research Chairs and Senior Research Fellowships
    These senior research posts strengthen the links between industry and academia by supporting exceptional academics in UK universities to undertake use-inspired research that meets the needs of the industrial partners. The next deadline will be in March 2018.
    More information: Research Chairs and Senior Research Fellowships
  2. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession
  3. BAM Nuttall Ltd. is one of the leading civil engineering contractors in the UK, creating modern infrastructure for public- and private-sector customers. We construct and maintain roads, railways, tunnels, bridges, ports and environmental protection and improvement schemes across the UK. Our people benefit from industry-leading learning and development, and our approach to digital data management and material science research puts us at the forefront of construction knowledge and productivity.

For more information please contact:

Aaron Boardley at the Royal Academy of Engineering
T: 020 7766 0655
E: Aaron Boardley