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J R Soc Interface. 2011 Jan 6;8(54):1-15. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2010.0270. Epub 2010 Sep 9.

Soil engineering in vivo: harnessing natural biogeochemical systems for sustainable, multi-functional engineering solutions.

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  • 1Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California-Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Carbon sequestration, infrastructure rehabilitation, brownfields clean-up, hazardous waste disposal, water resources protection and global warming-these twenty-first century challenges can neither be solved by the high-energy consumptive practices that hallmark industry today, nor by minor tweaking or optimization of these processes. A more radical, holistic approach is required to develop the sustainable solutions society needs. Most of the above challenges occur within, are supported on, are enabled by or grown from soil. Soil, contrary to conventional civil engineering thought, is a living system host to multiple simultaneous processes. It is proposed herein that 'soil engineering in vivo', wherein the natural capacity of soil as a living ecosystem is used to provide multiple solutions simultaneously, may provide new, innovative, sustainable solutions to some of these great challenges of the twenty-first century. This requires a multi-disciplinary perspective that embraces the science of biology, chemistry and physics and applies this knowledge to provide multi-functional civil and environmental engineering designs for the soil environment. For example, can native soil bacterial species moderate the carbonate cycle in soils to simultaneously solidify liquefiable soil, immobilize reactive heavy metals and sequester carbon-effectively providing civil engineering functionality while clarifying the ground water and removing carbon from the atmosphere? Exploration of these ideas has begun in earnest in recent years. This paper explores the potential, challenges and opportunities of this new field, and highlights one biogeochemical function of soil that has shown promise and is developing rapidly as a new technology. The example is used to propose a generalized approach in which the potential of this new field can be fully realized.

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