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3Qs: Living, breathing buildings

Illustration by Jerel Dye

Fifth-year chemical engineering student Devyesh Rana has some creative ideas for constructing buildings to withstand sun and earthquake damage.

So how do you hope to revolutionize the way buildings are made?

What I’m imagining — in the simplest sense — are plant structures. A little farfetched, I know. But it would be a building that would be able to regenerate after radiation damage from the sun or structural breaks from earthquakes. I’m going for bio-metallic buildings, which Wikipedia defines as a “living machine.” Earth is, fundamentally, a living machine.

Plant buildings? Where did you come up with that idea?

Working with professor (Carolyn) Lee-Parsons and professor (Albert) Sacco. In professor Lee-Parsons’s lab I was working with genetic mutations in plants, and it got me thinking: What if we could do that on a grander scale? Like for the materials used to construct buildings. Professor Sacco’s research in environmental remediation inspired me to think about how a structure built from organic materials might help clean the air inside a building.

Do you really think these ideas could work?

Well, no one’s figured out how yet — not that I know of. That’s why I’m applying to graduate schools with materials-science programs and active research on thin-film technologies. If I can understand how this stuff works, I’m sure I could elaborate on the technologies and incorporate it into bigger applications.

So do you envision yourself as some sort of mad architect creating living, breathing cities?

What I would really like to work on is creating materials for space and underwater exploration. There are a lot of problems that limit our ability to travel and live in these harsh environments — radiation, energy sustainability and storage, and access to food, air, and water. In an underwater facility, for example, I could see creating a thin biometal layer to prevent corrosion and radiation damage. I want to work on problems like these and try to solve them.