Published on 20 November 2017
Le Pont du Gard. ©Tiberio Frascari - cc-by-sa-2.0

From Roman concrete and synthetic fossils to Maya blue, ancient materials inspire innovative systems and devices.

How can archaeological objects or fossils transform to resist degradation for millennia or even millions of years? Could scientists and engineers learn from these processes to design new modern materials? Those questions are at the heart of the research interests of an international team led by Loïc Bertrand, Director of the IPANEMA European Research platform on Ancient materials at Université Paris-Saclay[1], France.

“It is evident that modern physics and chemistry provide tools and methods to study the composition and properties of materials from the arts, archaeology and paleontology”, Bertrand said. “A fascinating reverse benefit is ’paleo-inspiration‘: new materials start to emerge from in-depth studies of the exceptional properties encountered in a range of ancient and historical materials”.

In order to foster the development of innovative technologies based on ancient materials, the team composed of Bertrand, along with Claire Gervais, Professor of materials chemistry at Bern University of the Arts and lecturer at EPFL; Admir Masic, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT; and Luc Robbiola, CNRS Research engineer at the TRACES laboratory of the Toulouse University, discussed these numerous opportunities in a paper entitled “Paleo-inspired systems: Durability, Sustainability and Remarkable Properties”.

Published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, this paper reviews a range of recent works on ancient chemical processes in this new perspective, including the formation of Roman concrete, synthetic fossils, and artists’ pigments such as Mayan and Egyptian blues. For instance, scientists are learning how to reverse-engineer the recipe of Roman concrete, based on volcanic ashes or recycled materials. Such simple practices could soon lead to buildings that exhibit durability far beyond the lifespan of modern Portland cement. Ancient concrete is also eco-friendlier in terms of the energy consumption required for its production. As “bio-inspired” research mimics biological properties to engineer new materials, “paleo-inspiration” can thus inspire more sustainable, durable innovative materials.

This review results from a close interdisciplinary collaboration between four academic sites in France, Switzerland and the US. In particular, a joint laboratory from CNRS, the French Ministry of Culture and Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University, IPANEMA supports synchrotron-based research, namely at Synchrotron SOLEIL, and is the only infrastructure for heritage science located at a large-scale facility. IPANEMA is a center for the development of advanced methodologies of material characterization in archaeology, paleo-environments, paleontology and cultural heritage.

IPANEMA coordinates the definition of the scientific strategy of the new European infrastructure called European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS). TRACES in Toulouse has recently joined E-RIHS France. Through E-RIHS, international researchers will gain increased support for the in-depth study of ancient materials using a range of advanced methods. “IPANEMA and TRACES will host scientists who will directly benefit from cutting-edge analytical methods of photon- and electron-based microscopy”, Bertrand and Robbiola said. “Paleo-inspiration is an outcome of heritage studies that shows powerful promise to better connect Humanities and Natural Sciences in common endeavors and innovation.”

More information:

[1] CNRS / Ministère de la Culture / Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University, Université Paris-Saclay