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Snakeskin inspires construction method for safer buildings

According to researchers in Denmark and the US, building the foundations of buildings inspired by the snakeskin scales could result in more resilient structures.

Despite human ingenuity and resourcefulness, we still lag far behind the elegant and efficient solutions that nature has forged over millions of years of evolution.

This also applies to buildings, where animals and plants, for example, have developed highly effective excavation methods that are much more energy efficient than modern tunnel construction machines, and even self-repairing foundations that are extremely resistant to erosion and earthquakes.

Researchers from all over the world are therefore seeking inspiration from nature to develop the buildings of the future.

Now, a joint study from Aarhus University in Denmark and the University of California, Davis, in the US, has proposed building foundations inspired by the scales on snakeskin.

“Previous studies have shown that surface geometry inspired by snakeskin can produce different shear strengths depending on the loading direction.

We have taken this knowledge a step further in this research and examined the interaction between different soil types and these snakeskin surfaces, ” said Hans Henning Stutz, assistant professor, Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture at Aarhus University.

Builders usually make modern pile foundations by driving, drilling, or pushing piles into the ground to achieve sufficient load-bearing capacity for a building.

Today, builders usually prefabricate the piles with square or circular cross-sections and a load-bearing capacity that is isotropic (identical in all shear directions) due to the predominantly symmetrical, smooth profile of the surface.

In the study, however, the researchers experimented with asymmetrical surface microstructural features, resembling the scales along the underside of a snake.

These so-called ventral scales are elongated in shape, relatively smooth and have cross-sections in the shape of an elongated right triangle.

“By experimenting with ‘shells’ 0.5mm high and 20-60mm long, we achieved – in laboratory conditions – a significantly increased load-bearing capacity in the media we studied:different types of sand, specifically,” Stutz said.

The results of the project also show that piles with this surface pattern provide 25-50 percent less resistance during installation compared to the pressure they can subsequently bear.

According to Stutz, there is still a lot to learn from biology in optimizing structures and sustainable foundations and believes that future construction will find much more inspiration.

“Evolution has come up with some pretty inspiring solutions over the years and there is a lot to be gained from a geotechnical perspective,” he said.

“I am convinced that in the future we will see major developments in bio-inspired and highly effective solutions, especially in anchoring, tunnels and marine structures.”