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Bacteria Could Steady Buildings Against Earthquakes

February 21, 2007

Soil bacteria could be used to help steady buildings against earthquakes, according to researchers at UC Davis. The microbes can literally convert loose, sandy soil into rock.

When a major earthquake strikes, deep, sandy soils can turn to liquid, with disastrous consequences for buildings sitting on them. Currently, civil engineers can inject chemicals into the soil to bind loose grains together. But these epoxy chemicals may have toxic effects on soil and water, said Jason DeJong, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis.

The new process, so far tested only at a laboratory scale, takes advantage of a natural soil bacterium, Bacillus pasteurii. The microbe causes calcite (calcium carbonate) to be deposited around sand grains, cementing them together. By injecting bacterial cultures, additional nutrients and oxygen, DeJong and his colleagues found that they could turn loose, liquefiable sand into a solid cylinder.

"Starting from a sand pile, you turn it back into sandstone," DeJong said. Similar techniques have been used on a smaller scale, for example, to repair cracks in statues, but not to reinforce soil.

The new method has several advantages, DeJong said. There are no toxicity problems, compared with chemical methods. The treatment could be done after construction or on an existing building, and the structure of the soil is not changed -- some of the void spaces between grains are just filled in.

DeJong and his collaborators are working on scaling the method up to a practical size, and applying for funds to test the method in the earthquake-simulating centrifuge at UC Davis' Center for Geotechnical Modeling. The centrifuge is part of the national Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, funded by the National Science Foundation.

A paper describing the work has been published in the Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering. The other authors are Michael Fritzges, a senior engineer at Langan Engineering, Philadelphia; and Klaus Nüsslein, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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