Professor Rebecca Lunn appointed Research Chair

Professor Rebecca Lunn

Professor Rebecca Lunn MBE has been appointed BAM Nuttall / RAEng Research Chair in Biomineral Technologies for Ground Engineering.

The five-year post will see Professor Lunn working on a project that aims to use bacteria to solidify soil in order to reduce the use of cements in construction.

The project will examine and scale up microbially-induced calcite precipitation (MICP) from laboratory tests to a practical industry solution, unlocking low-carbon alternatives for industry.

The MICP process uses naturally-occurring bacteria and urea solutions injected into soil to change its properties, making the soil stronger and more stable.

The bacteria precipitate calcite, a hard mineral that binds together particles in the soil, turning loose soil into an intact rock. This technology can be used to build and repair infrastructure, minimising carbon-intensive use of cement.

Industrial applications

Globally, a few small-scale field trials and industrial applications of the technique have been completed, however, such activities are rare and none have been conducted in the UK to-date.

Wider industrial application depends on demonstrating that in-situ injection into naturally heterogeneous on-site soils can produce a reliable, uniform construction material with the desired strength and drainage characteristics.

Professor Lunn’s research, extending her well-established partnership with BAM Nuttall, will look at how to develop the technology into a full commercial solution.

Professor Lunn said: “We want to develop sustainable earth infrastructure, such as flood embankments and coastal defences, that harness this biomineral technology to improve the properties of the existing soil; providing a durable, non-destructive alternative to traditional carbon-intensive construction methods.

Having collaborated with BAM Nuttall over a number of years, we share a common understanding of how to turn early-stage research into innovative construction techniques. BAM’s knowledge and experience in the infrastructure sector will allow this technology to gain early acceptance and broaden the range of applications quickly.”

BAM Nuttall Director Alasdair Henderson added: “We’re absolutely delighted that Professor Lunn will be taking up the BAM Nuttall / RAEng Research Chair. Construction has a mixed record in research and development, something that our business has worked hard to change over recent years. We know that successfully implementing innovations like MICP leads directly to improved productivity, lower carbon demand and greater economic growth, with a beneficial effect across society.”

The research will also build on Professor Lunn’s previous work applying MICP to seal rock fractures during the construction of geological disposal facilities for nuclear waste. Her group has successfully developed the technology for sealing individual fractures within the laboratory at the 1-2 metre scale. In partnership with BAM Nuttall, the Research Chair position will allow progression from these laboratory tests to field trials for rock fracture sealing.

Professor Lunn said: “As well as testing and building confidence in the technology itself, I’ll be using my time in this Research Chair to tackle the challenges related to scaling it up for industrial use.

“For example, how do you grow and transport sufficient bacteria? How do you implement the technology on site without requiring civil engineers to become microbiologists? With the support of BAM Nuttall and the Royal Academy of Engineering, I will be solving these engineering challenges and developing a low-carbon solution that can make a real difference in industry.”