The U.S. Air Force Plans to 'Grow' Runways with Bacteria

Project Medusa plans to use biomanufacturing to grow military-grade runways using nothing more than dirt and microorganisms.

C-17 performs semi prepared runway operations flight
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook

U.S. Air Force aircraft could someday take off and land from airfields in the middle of nowhere—from runways grown with bacteria.

Like the mythological monster that turned its victims into stone, is seeking to turn easily sourced materials into a flat, sturdy surface for aircraft. The result? A runway capable of even supporting large transport aircraft.

As the service continues to shift towards the threat of big power warfare against potential adversaries such as Russia and China, there is an increasing realization that the service may have to project air power where large, permanent air bases are not available. Blue Horizons, a think tank within the Air Force designed to create and test future strategic concepts and capabilities, conducted a study to determine if biomanufacturing—the use of bacteria and other microscopic organisms to create objects—could be useful in air base construction.

Blue Horizons is working with BioMASON, a North Carolina biomanufacturing company that’s developed a technique for turning sand and soil into durable, hard surfaces. Engineers into brick molds and add bacteria to the mix. Nutrient-rich water is added to feed the bacteria and allow it to grow. The bacteria creates calcium carbonate crystals that bind the sand grains together, resulting in a durable brick that can be used in construction.

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A bioMASON employee applies a feeding to the bacteria to harden the surface of the Project Medusa 2,500 square foot prototype in Durham, North Carolina.
James O’Rourke/DVIDS

Project Medusa has undergone several tests, including a final a 2,500-square-foot structural prototype. “While our prototype is a small step toward enabling full runways to be built with something other than concrete, it demonstrates this technology is absolutely feasible outside of the laboratory,” said Maj. MacKenzie Birchenough, a developmental engineer and Blue Horizons member.

Birchenough’s description of the process is generally identical to the brick-growing process—apply bacteria, feed it, and let the microscopic organisms do their thing. The big remaining question is how long it takes to grow a single brick, let alone an airfield.

Traditionally, the U.S. Air Force has relied on engineers to build runways. Today that task is handled by the service’s (RED HORSE) heavy construction squadrons. But engineering work requires heavy machinery, including cement mixers, construction materials, and construction personnel. All of that stuff needs to be trucked or flown to the construction site, which is an added logistical burden in a shooting war.

Biomanufacturing could significantly cut down on the amount of people and equipment needed to build air base facilities. The final prototype even used local dirt instead of concrete mix to create a hardened surface. In a future conflict, adversaries could find themselves under attack from U.S. forces operating out of previously unknown airfields, all thanks to tiny creatures invisible to the human eye.

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