“Urban growth can't rely on the fixed and aging infrastructure built in past centuries. [Our Project] ‘Unlocking the Future of Infrastructure’ imagines converging approaches from materials science, robotics, computer science, civil engineering, architectural engineering and mechanical engineering to enable the development of new building materials and automated construction systems” said Dr. Chelsea Heveran and Juan Pablo Gevaudan; colleagues, research partners and grand prize winners of the National Science Foundation 2026 Big Idea Meritorious Award (2020). The contest was an out-of-the-box competition based on big ideas and foresight. Heveran and Gevaudan believe living building materials that have structural and biological functions are the solution to our growing infrastructure problem.
“One of the greatest challenges that exists today, and that is only getting worse today, is resource scarcity.” said Heveran, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at MSU.
Infrastructure is an integral part of our economic and industrial stability. Running out of raw materials would first crash the industrial industry and then strike the global economic market with such force the stock market could spiral into numbers that haven’t been seen since America’s Great Depression.
“If we're going to make infrastructure, but we're running out of materials and frankly funds to even improve and maintain our infrastructure, how do we continue?” questioned Heveran. “If we fail to adequately maintain our infrastructure in the future, then it is going to cause a lot of problems in our society. It's going to exacerbate pressures that are already there and create new pressures.”
Transitioning from economic pressures, Heveran explained that resource scarcity is also a huge reason why we can not make buildings on planets like Mars. Say someone has the great idea to set up a colony on Mars. Heveran explained that one of the first questions is ”Oh, well, are you going to bring a shuttle full of [dry] cement? There’s no water. It is a profound resource scarcity. Maybe if we were able to address resource scarcity for building in a place like Mars, we might also get closer to addressing a resource scarcity on Earth.”
Overall, Heveran and Gevaudan's combined Big Idea focused on unlocking the future of infrastructure through the use of several different strategies to mitigate resource strategy for building materials and infrastructure materials, as well as looking into waterless chemistry and more recyclable and sustainable materials. Overall, the project strives to figure out how we can make our materials do more for us.
“I think that it is simultaneously an exciting time to be working on these types of material science questions, but also an urgent time,” said Heveran. “We have to come up with solutions if we are going to encourage human health, prosperity, exploration, and development in the ways that we want to. It's also a tremendous time to be involved in this work from a student perspective. Montana State University is at the forefront of this work, not just in my lab, but in many labs at this university. There are so many wonderful ways for students to get involved in very purpose driven projects to make the world a better place.”