South Dakota School of Mines & Technology has been awarded $475,000 from the National Science Foundation to study how termites construct mounds with the idea that humans might one day adapt the energy-efficient homebuilding techniques of the insects. The award is a follow-up to a previous grant by NSF of $300,000.

Mines faculty researchers spent time in the African country of Namibia to study the shape and function of termite mounds. The mounds are resilient and naturally energy efficient. Their intricate interior designs provide ventilation and temperature regulation throughout what can easily be a 15-foot-tall home for a single colony of 2 million termites. 

“An understanding of the natural processes involved in termite mound construction and function can be adapted to inform engineering applications related to the construction of man-made structures that require zero or minimal energy inputs,” said the NSF award letter.

Co-principal investigator Andrea Surovek, Ph.D., a research scientist from SD Mines’ Department of Mechanical Engineering, has lead research that examined hundreds of slices of a termite mound and has developed three-dimensional models of numerous mounds using photo capture technology. “The termites have an innate sense of how to build a stable structure, which is remarkable since they construct them one piece of soil at a time. We have found that the external form of the mound is less dependent on the climate and more on the type of soil available for construction,” Surovek said.

The current study focuses on the make-up of the constructed mound material to help establish how the air is coming into and circulated through the mounds. The multidisciplinary project involves engineering, material science and biology and will lead to advances in materials and structural forms that require significantly less energy and are more sustainable than traditional construction.

“Research outcomes will move the U.S. toward greater energy independence and security. Technology transfer of new materials and systems will grow manufacturing and strengthen national economic development,” said the NSF award announcement.

Principal investigator Bret Lingwall, Ph.D., and co-principal investigator Christopher Shearer, Ph.D., are from the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at SD Mines. William Capehart, Ph.D., and Khsoro Shahbazi, Ph.D., were investigators on the initial studies.