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Scientists to study termites for building tips

Sub-Saharan bug builds huge, self-cooled nests. Research involves energy efficiency for skyscrapers.

The next generation of skyscrapers could be inspired by creatures that live in the dirt and enlist a fungus to help chew their food.

Engineers and entomologists from Loughborough University in Cambridge, England, and from the State University of New York will team up for three years to study the building techniques of Macrotermes michaelseni, a termite that lives in sub-Saharan Africa.

The termites build freestanding mounds that contain an intricate network of tunnels and air conduits that control temperature, moisture and air quality.

The structure of the mounds is fairly sophisticated, researchers note. The mounds capture wind to create internal air flow, functioning like lungs do in organisms and helping the termites live in a fairly stable environment.

The idea behind the research is to see if structural engineers can come up with ways to build passive air systems, cut down on energy consumption or in general optimize the efficiency of large buildings.

In many tech fields, nature is rapidly becoming a model to emulate. Some materials companies, for instance, believe that they can one day build chips through self-replicating chemical reactions, similar to how abalones build their shells.

A substantial portion of the work, which is sponsored with a $755,000 (421,000 pounds) grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will revolve around creating 3D images and scans of termite mounds.

Like many multinational corporations, the termites are also fans of outsourcing. Instead of chewing wood fiber directly, the creatures first give slightly chewed fiber to a fungus farm, which then further breaks it down into digestible food. The mound itself is built in such a way as to create an optimal environment for the fungus.

"We hope that our findings will provide clues that aid the ultimate development of new kinds of self-sufficient human habitats. These habitats might be suited to use in a variety of arid, hostile environments," Rupert Soar, a lecturer at Loughborough University's School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, and the leader of the project, said in a statement.

Sir David Attenborough will film the research, which will take place in Namibia, for a documentary that will come out in 2006.