Architecture Lessons From Termites: An Interview With Dr. Kamaljit Singh

Termite mounds are an essential part of an ecosystem, as they recycle water and nutrients.

As I waded through the eager crowds at the Imperial Lates, a giant termite nest caught my eye. Unfortunately, it was just a poster! But, one minute later, I was listening to a fascinating explanation being given to the crowd assembled before that stall which read “Mounds of Interest”. Besides demonstrating their ability to appreciate a good pun, the researchers at the stall were explaining their research on termite mounds, looking at how understanding the mound’s structure could help human engineering and architecture.

The day after the event, I sat down to talk with Dr. Kamaljit Singh, who is one of the principal authors of this work. Currently, he is an assistant professor at the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He told me how excited he was, particularly as he was new to the field.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s been one and a half years, we’ve been exploring this. We spoke by chance. We just came in contact with biologists who are investigating this mound for long time.”

So, why exactly was Singh so keen to enter a completely unfamiliar field of study? Because termite mounds are excellent at regulating their own temperature. “The interest here is because the structure itself, it controls temperature so well, within +- 2°C or 3°C throughout the day, […] we can learn the mechanism, how they control it, so we can design energy efficient buildings. That’s the motivation behind it.” Alongside this, the team are interested in the mound’s ventilation, as it is well-established that they are excellent at regulating humidity levels.

Singh’s group have taken a unique approach by studying the role of the microstructures of the outer walls in the mounds, and how they help with the mound’s self-regulation.

According to Singh, there are small and large pores at the microscale for percolation across the outer wall, which they were able to show by multi-scale X-ray imaging with three-dimensional flow field simulations. The team scanned the termite mound structure and found an eightfold increase of CO2 diffusion in the larger pores compared to the smaller pores, showing how the network of the larger pores drastically improved its permeability.

The group also studied how the pore networks helped with the drainage of rainwater, insulation, and ventilation, maintaining the nest’s structural stability. By replicating these structures and running simulations in the lab, they were able to study the principles of architecture used in these mounds to regulate temperature, water drainage, ventilation, and CO2 exchange.

Dr. Kamaljit Singh presenting his research on termite nest structures at the October Imperial Lates.

Just as they’d been intrigued by the mechanics of the mounds, I was curious about the ‘behind-the scenes’ mechanics of the study. As it turned out, their team was a diverse one. He spoke about how plain old networking at a conference got them together.

“One professor from Mathematics from here [Imperial], one civil engineer, one petroleum engineer, another mathematician. Then we’ve got two guys from France who are really famous in this field in Biology. […] This is the beauty of our team because you have a diverse background, but with the same aim.”

Singh was based at the Science Engineering Department in Imperial College as he got this group together. As the group grew, more people were connected and got involved over Skype calls and video chats. In fact, Singh hasn’t even met two of the scientists in person! “But I know them very well now,” he recalled, whilst laughing, “because of the Skype meetings and [because] we published a paper together.”

Even the termite mounds they studied were as international as the team that was studying them. “We got samples from our collaborators in France, from Senegal, which is in Africa but they’ve been doing this field work in Australia and Brazil.” I was amazed at the scope of networking in research and the new possibilities that technology has opened up for scientists around the world to collaborate for research.

So, what does the future hold for this global group of Skype-connected scientists?

Essentially, there are few riders involved in getting the termite nests transported perfectly. Transport can cause damage. It is important that the structure stays intact, hence it would be greatly beneficial to do more expansive on-field studies. Next on the list is to study other contributing factors to increase the accuracy of the remodelling on computer simulations.

“Our next idea, is to do really comprehensive studies-on field scale studies. Collect all the data for temperatures, moisture content, wind velocity because we need this input data for modelling purposes and then create something very similar in the lab, controlling the temperature precisely, controlling the CO2 concentration precisely and then checking all the parameters […] and then of course, add it on the computer simulations.”

Naturally, I wanted to know how long it would take for these computer simulations to have a impact in the architectural, or engineering world. “I think we are very close to […] first of all, combining few things together microstructures to macro scale and we are now running simulations at the moment [for] controlling temperatures. Of course, we then need to validate all the data, do some experiments […] it’ll take a couple of years before we have something very concrete.”

He also emphasised their plans to expand their team. Until now, they had been looking at this as a part-time project, something saved for the weekends. However, they are now planning to turn it into a full time project, and maybe begin teaching engineers and architects some new tricks. I for one, hope that this research gets the traction it deserves, and we soon get the self-cooling sustainable skyscrapers our planet will need.

Priyanka Dasgupta is a MSc Science Communication student, and co Editor-in-Chief of I, Science magazine.

Dr. Kamaljit Singh is as Assistant Professor at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. His other academic works can be found here.

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