“We are part of a brilliant planet…and we are surrounded by genius,” says Janine Benyus, biologist, author, and founder of the Biomimicry Institute. Biomimicry is the science of studying and emulating nature’s solutions to the problems that human beings are trying to solve. Over the 3.8 billion years that life has existed on Earth, nature, through evolution, has come up with sustainable and robust solutions that work and that endure. As the Biomimicry Institute’s website says, “…failures are fossils and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”
Biomimicry looks at and learns from different levels of nature’s design: its forms, its processes and its ecosystems. Studying a natural form, such as the pointed beak of the kingfisher, for example, enabled an engineer to reduce air pressure on the bullet train. Examining how female woolly spider monkeys regulate their reproductive processes by eating plants that affect their fertility is being applied to research for safer contraceptives. And understanding an ecosystem like the prairie, is resulting in the development of sustainable and productive ways of managing the land.
The Biomimicry Institute, founded in 2005, aims to educate and inspire scientists, engineers, architects and innovators who can use nature’s solutions to create sustainable technologies. It offers workshops, certificate courses, and helps develop curricula for schools, zoos and museums.
A unique adjunct of the institute is AskNature.org, a rich online resource that organizes biological information by design and engineering functions: breaking down, storing or distributing resources, maintaining community or physical integrity, making, modifying, moving or staying put, and processing information. AskNature is working in partnership with E.O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life whose goal is to gather and make available information about every species on earth. Anyone can browse AskNature.org’s compilation of nature’s ingenious strategies to find inspiration or solutions for innovative ideas and products, and to explore what new biomimetic technologies are in the works.
Here are just a few examples from AskNature.org:
Lotus leaves appear smooth and unblemished as they grow out of the mud, but there are actually microscopic crevices in the leaf surface creating a “maze of air” on which water droplets float. When a breeze tips the leaf, the water droplets roll off, taking dirt particles with them. Paints, tiles and fabrics are now being made with similar microscopically rough surfaces that repel dirt without the need for toxic chemicals. GreenShield™ is a stain-resistant coating based on the “lotus effect” that uses 10 times less toxic fluorocarbons than most stain-resistant products.
Blue mussels manage to firmly attach themselves to rocks or other surfaces despite the pull of waves and water. Scientists have learned that they accomplish this through hundreds of tiny threads, called byssus, composed of proteins that are sticky and not water-soluble. A company called PureBond® has produced a protein-based adhesive that doesn’t contain the carcinogenic formaldehyde used in many other adhesives.
After studying how platelets in human blood rush to the site of an injury to clump up and form a blood clot, scientists developed Platelet Technology to plug up leaks in pipes and other infrastructure. When an oil pipeline fractures, direct contact with the leak site is no longer necessary—Platelets® made of special polymers are injected into the pipe and move to seal the leak.
In the ocean, algae living in coral reefs take CO2 from seawater in photosynthesis, and provide corals with energy and nutrients. The corals then secrete calcium carbonate from which coral reefs are formed. Based on this natural process, California-based Calera figured out how to convert CO2 into carbonates to produce a new kind of cement that both sequesters CO2 and offsets the carbon that would have been generated from traditional cement production.
The natural hydrological cycle is the basis for the seawater greenhouse technology that I described in an earlier blog post, which is used in the Sahara Forest Project, a 200,000-square-meter center that will use water from the Red Sea to produce fresh water, food, energy, and sustainable biomass. The London-based architectural firm Exploration, one of the principals on the Sahara Forest Project, looks to biomimicry for many of its project designs. Its Eden Project Biomes, a light-weight, mostly self-heating greenhouse that is the largest in the world, was inspired by the configuration of bubble clusters and the structure of dragonfly wings.
The Land Institute in Kansas, has developed what it calls Natural Systems Agriculture based on the ecosystems that existed in an area before humans came along, and on the idea that all natural ecosystems increase their “ecological wealth.”
The natural prairie recycles all materials, maintains its productiveness, needs only natural sunlight and water, and increases biodiversity—in contrast to our monoculture practice of agriculture where soil is plowed, erodes, and requires increasing amounts of fertilizer and pesticides to remain productive. To counter this unsustainable practice, The Land Institute is developing varied species of perennial grain crops that could help feed the world’s growing population, preserve the land and promote biodiversity.
Biomimicry is not new. Native peoples around the world were once keen observers of nature and learned from the animals, plants, and natural cycles around them. But as human population grew, we became colonizers, says Benyus, always moving someplace else after using up the resources in one spot. Today that’s no longer possible. Global population is exploding and we’re exhausting our ecological capital. Moreover we’ve recognized that human hubris has created enormous problems on our planet, for which we are urgently seeking answers. How can we live here gracefully over the long haul? Janine Benyus calls this “the design challenge of our century.” Biomimicry is providing the answers.