While most people view fire ants as troublesome pests, scientists believe that these tiny creatures might hold the secret to incredible innovations in construction.
Indeed, these tiny builders are able to build rafts, bridges, ladders and walls just by linking their bodies together. By studying these ants, humans might one day be able to build material that can adapt to nature and possibly even heal itself if damage occurs.
However, mechanical engineer David Hu says that humans are still many years away from being able to achieve the feats of the mighty fire ants. Hu has been studying the ants for decades, and he believes that they are the secret to future advances in engineering.
Based on findings from Hu and his colleagues, the ants react like a liquid or a solid depending upon the amount of pressure that is placed upon them. The ants can use this ability to float on water and swarm enemies or food.
Ants literally use themselves like a building material. However this material is considerably more advanced than any such materials that is used by humans. Since ants are alive, they are able to respond and adapt to changes within their environment. Developing a sort of active material could lead to major building innovations.
However, creating a “self-healing” material is easier said than done.
Hu says, “It's an active research problem that they've been working on it for the last 20 years. In the US, we have a lot of problems with our infrastructure getting old, and everything we've built has to be repaired after a certain number of years: pipes, buildings, bridges, anything that has to support large loads.”
Hu believes that the process of mimicking an ant-like material starts by understanding how each individual ant behaves. He thinks of the ants like small individual robots, and each needs their own energy source and method of communication to work with the others. This material would represent somewhat of an entirely new branch of physics.
If they can pull it off, innovations will be quick to occur, and major building renovations and upkeep might become a thing of the past.
For now though, it’s all about just studying the humble ant.