Humans have been getting ideas from other animals and plants as long as we’ve been around. As Leonardo DaVinci once said, “Those who are inspired by a model other than nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain.” But historically speaking, its application has been haphazard, and has not particularly been used for green design.
Biomimicry (usually called bionics in Europe) is the redesign of industrial processes and products based on new understandings of how natural systems and creatures accomplish similar ends — and it may be the most promising branch of the growing sustainable design movement. When well done, it’s not slavish imitation; it is inspiration, using the principles which nature has demonstrated to be successful design strategies. For instance, in the early days of mechanized flight, the best designs were not the ornithopters, which most completely imitated birds, but the fixed-wing craft that used the principle of airfoil cross-section in their wings. Biomimicry can operate on any scale, from super-adhesive tape that imitates a gecko’s skin to a high-rise building that imitates a termite mound for passive air-conditioning. So here’s a quick primer on what it is, why it’s useful, and why you’ll be seeing a lot more of it in years to come.
The leader of this growing school of thought is Janine Benyus (check out her amazing speeches on TED Talks). As Benyus puts it, “The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. This is the real news of biomimicry: After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”
The core of Benyus’ ideas is treating nature as model, measure and mentor. Nature as model means that we can get ideas from organisms to solve our problems — whatever we are trying to do, there are usually several organisms that have evolved successful strategies. Nature as measure means we can look to the natural world to see what is possible. For instance, spider silk is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar, but the spider is a “factory” smaller than your little finger, which uses no boiling sulphuric acid or high-pressure extruders, and whose only raw materials are crickets and flies. Nature as mentor means we should change our relationship with nature, recognizing that we are part of it, not separate from it; as such, we should treat it as a partner and teacher rather than merely a resource-extraction site.
Biomimicry can be achieved on different levels, according to Benyus: form or function, the process level and the system level. Biomimetic forms and functions are the most common and they include all of the previous examples. Biomimetic processes are harder to achieve, but tend to have bigger benefits. Biomimetic systems are closed-loop lifecycles, where outputs and by-products become inputs for something else. This may be where nature has the most to teach us; everything alive is part of multiple complex webs of predator/prey, waste/fertilizer, parasite/host, etc., only a few of which have equivalents in modern industry. I would argue that the kind of biomimicry used most frequently today is actually a fourth level, the design level. This includes genetic algorithms, and iterative design (making multiple prototypes, user-testing them to find the favorites, then mixing and matching elements to create another generation of prototypes which are in turn user-tested). Biomimicry on the design level can produce things that are biomimetic on the form/function, process and system levels, but it can also produce things that nature has never evolved (such as an oddly shaped satellite antenna.)
At the base of everything we make is chemistry. The natural world has this incredible recipe book of ways that it goes about reactions. Industrial chemistry heats things up to high temperatures, puts it under enormous pressures and forces molecules together with toxic chemicals. So it’s heat, beat and treat. In the rest of the natural world it’s completely opposite; reactions occur at body temperature in water with simple solvents.
Chemists are improving their grasp on the complex organic realm, where material can be built up a few molecules at a time in specific places, effectively growing material rather than having to cut it away. For instance, MIT researchers are attempting to grow batteries like abalone shells grow and are using virus microbes to do it with; carbon nanotubes have also been used to create self-assembling electronics. Other researchers are learning how to get from nanoscale materials to macro-scale products, like the nanotube ribbon which can be produced at seven meters per minute. As our nanotech and biotech capabilities improve, it will become easier and easier to grow things rather than build them. Pollution regulations and growing awareness of resource scarcity are also starting to motivate industry to find non-toxic chemistry, which will drive people towards chemistry as nature does it, in water, at ambient temperature and pressure.
Will the chemical market start to go green by itself, as other industries are starting to do? Not yet. Michael Wilson, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, said, “Green chemistry entrepreneurs have a difficult time breaking into the market because there are fundamental data gaps in chemical toxicity that prevent buyers from choosing safer chemicals … The market is therefore operating very inefficiently and will require corrections through public policy.” He continued, “By requiring that producers generate and distribute standardized, robust information on chemical toxicity (for use by downstream industry, business, consumers, workers) we will open new markets for green chemistry entrepreneurs.”
Wilson was hopeful about the green chemistry busineses he knows, which “have some brilliant products supported by solid data, that reduce costs significantly and also make a substantial environmental contribution.” Some corporate leaders include Advanced Biocatalytics and Novozyme.
We definitely live in exciting times, don’t we? For more info on biomimicry, check out AskNature.org.
Ben Eckold is a business administration senior, the former president of the Empower Poly Coalition and a Mustang Daily columnist.
That was awesome! Biomimicry is such and interesting topic. Nature really has the best designs and solutions to many of our problems. I think biomimicry is essentially a mix between biology and engineering, but is still a rather small and unexplored industry. I would love to have a job trying to remake nature. This is just a step of humans becoming more in touch with nature and their surroundings, and working with it instead of against it!
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