Research & Innovation Community Talk: Building with Biology
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Research & Innovation Community Talk: Building with Biology


[light dramatic music] [people applauding]
[people cheering] Good evening, everyone. My name is Wil Srubar and yes, today I’m a professor of
architectural engineering and director of the Living
Materials Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder. But don’t let these fancy shoes fool you. I grew up on a cotton
farm and cattle ranch on the plains of Southeast Texas, where the land was our livelihood. And every day, I came face to face with the cleverness of nature. I remember wading through
floodwaters in the mid-1990s next to a colony of fire
ants that had piled high on top of each other to
ensure their survival. I often delighted at some lizards losing their wriggling
tail to evade a predator, usually that was me. [people laughing] I was in constant awe of nature’s instinct and responsiveness, especially
in times of acute crisis. I was raised on a farm but
it was the skyline of Houston and baseball games with my
dad at the Houston Astrodome that inspired me to become
a structural engineer. I realized pretty early on, that building, like nature, was in my blood. As a first generation college student, I didn’t get much guidance
or direction from my parents as to what career I should choose. They simply encouraged me saying, “Do what you love, and love what you do.” So I went to Texas A&M University and I majored in structural engineering. And boy, did I love what I did. After learning the nuts and
bolts of building, literally, I moved into concrete jungles
and living in those jungles and visiting other concrete jungles, it came as quite a shock to me that in these urban environments, humans were so separate from nature. As a structural engineer, I was shocked to learn that concrete is the second most consumed
material on Earth after water. As a human, I was further surprised that the production of cement, the powder we use to make concrete, is responsible for 6% of
our global CO2 emissions. I went on to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Texas, and
a PhD at Stanford University in sustainable construction materials, and that’s what led me here to CU. My husband and I arrived in Boulder right after the great flood of 2013, and like ants fighting for survival, I witnessed a community
again come together and fight to endure and rebuild
in time of acute crisis. It was also a real turning point for me in recognizing that we as a species are facing unprecedented challenges to both our built and
natural environments. The builder in me wanted
to solve this problem and the kid in me remembered
the ingenuity of nature. At CU, I founded the Living
Materials Laboratory. We take inspiration from nature to solve some of the
most pressing challenges that plague the materials
with which we choose to build. For example, while climate
change is causing extreme warming in some parts of the globe. Climate change is also exacerbating the number of freezing and thawing cycles in some parts of the country,
which puts additional stress on our already aging
concrete infrastructure. What’s really interesting is
that for the past century, the way in which we mitigate
freeze thaw damage in concrete is that we put tiny little
air bubbles inside of it to help alleviate the pressure from the water expanding when it freezes. But the tiny little air
bubbles as you can imagine, makes concrete weaker and more susceptible to other types of damage. I did some research and
I found that a multitude of species of fish, plants,
insects and bacteria actually thrive in subzero temperatures. They do so by creating what’s
called an antifreeze protein. A small molecule that binds
to little ice crystals when they form inside the organism and they keep it really small, preventing damage from the
growth of that crystal. In my lab, we drew inspiration
from antifreeze proteins and we created a molecule
that mimics its behavior and we put it in the concrete. We’ve shown that by mimicking nature, our biomimetic molecule
helps prevent frost damage without entraining any air. This is particularly exciting for us because this is the first innovation in frost resilience in over a century, and it has applications
beyond construction. From tissue engineering,
food and agriculture, energy, aerospace, and even infrastructure
beyond this planet. Going forward, if we keep looking to the cleverness of nature, this is what I think our
future world could look like. We wouldn’t burn the
limestone to make the cement. We wouldn’t mine the
ore to make the steel. And we wouldn’t melt the
sand to make the glass. Instead, we’d use biology to help us build a brand new world, and what a wonderful world that would be. Thank you. [people applauding]
[people cheering]

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