Earthquake-Proof Coconut Houses Could Protect Against Natural Disasters

Engineers are taking inspiration from coconut shells. S_Photo/Shutterstock

Scientists are finally harnessing the power of the coconut to make the world a better place. In case you need educating on the many virtues of this delicious drupe, you are now invited to read this love letter to the coconut (then we’ll get back to the science):

Proudly you sit atop the coconut palm, fearless in the face of gravity at the summit of the tropical pantheon. And though pride may come before a fall, dutifully you hurl yourself – when the moment is ripe – where other fruits daren’t. Come sand or stone, your integrity (structural and moral) remains unbroken post impact, whence not a drop of your electrolyte-laden richness is spilled.

The human, so squishy and unenduring, quakes in his boots at the merest of ground tremors, yet fault lines and tectonic plates shake not the composure of the coconut, seismic in its resistance to nature’s tantrums. Only upon the blade of the machete or the face of the hammer do you yield your inner wisdom, selflessly gracing our piña coladas and macaroons with your essence.

In short, coconuts are made of seriously strong stuff. In fact, their shells are so sturdy that they are able to fall from heights of around 30 meters (98 feet) without breaking when they hit the ground. Humans, on the other hand, are not quite so robust, and need protecting from natural disasters like earthquakes and landslides. If only we were more like coconuts.

Fortunately, researchers from the Plant Biomechanics Group of the University of Freiburg have been working to unlock the “inner wisdom” of the coconut and apply this to structural engineering projects in order to create more protective buildings.

Presenting their work at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology this week, the team reveal how they used impact pendulums and compression machines to study how the energy produced by heavy blows is dispersed by the shell of the coconut. In doing so, they discovered that the innermost layer of this shell – known as the endocarp – is composed of lignified cells arranged in a ladder formation, which cause this energy to become deflected in multiple directions so that no long, straight cracks are produced.

As a result, these cracks never reach the outermost layer of the shell, called the exocarp, and the coconut remains intact.

Commenting on this finding, researcher Stefanie Schmier explained that “the endocarp seems to dissipate energy via crack deflection.” Given that “the combination of lightweight structuring with high energy dissipation capacity is of increasing interest to protect buildings against earthquakes, rock fall and other natural or manmade hazards,” it seems we could one day find ourselves living in coconut-inspired houses – just like this octopus.

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