How DOD’s Old Concrete Infrastructure Could Start to Fix Itself

The military’s old concrete will repair its own cracks if researchers can pull off what the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency hopes under its new BRACE program. DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office announced the four-and-a-half-year BRACE research program—short for Bio-inspired Restoration of Aged Concrete Edifices—March 17.

Companies and research institutions have until April 8 to register for a Proposers Day informational event scheduled for April 13. A Broad Agency Announcement for BRACE should be published “in the coming weeks,” the agency said in a statement

Citing the Defense Department’s concrete airfields and missile silos, the agency acknowledged in the statement that “maintaining and repairing concrete is of increasing strategic importance to both defense and civilian infrastructure.” 

Surface treatments for repairing cracks are “short-lived and do not address the underlying causes of decay,” so DARPA wants to figure out how concrete can repair itself from within by adding a vascular system, inspired by the arteries and veins in biological organisms, to transport “healing substances” through the concrete, according to the release.

DOD also needs new approaches to quickly repair airfields after attacks, DARPA said in a pdf describing the Proposers Day event: “Rapid patching of craters is the current repair strategy to repair runway surfaces after an attack,” according to the pdf. “New approaches are needed that will work with DOD’s Expedient and Expeditionary Airfield Damage Repair (E-ADR) capability to restore airfield operations with a minimal logistical footprint.”

New research already suggests that “cross-disciplinary technologies” can impart “self-healing capabilities” to old concrete, according to the statement. The Proposers Day will include cross-disciplinary teaming opportunities.

If successful, BRACE will “prevent new damage, shorten repair time, and reduce maintenance costs, allowing for extended infrastructure service life,” said BRACE program manager Matthew J. Pava in the statement. 

“Today’s DOD has inherited, and relies upon, a significant amount of concrete infrastructure from the 1940s and 1950s that cannot be easily replaced,” Pava said.

Research will take place in two technical areas. The first will involve figuring out how to impart existing concrete with vascular systems—which in addition to transporting the healing substances should involve some self-monitoring so people will be able to know the systems are working down deep in the concrete. The second technical area will involve practical ways to put the systems into the concrete and how to maintain and repair them.

“While BRACE is focused on DOD applications, our hope is that the technologies generated will have potential civilian benefits as well,” Pava said in the statement.