Taking a leaf out of nature’s book // 20 April 2013

Written in 2010 but never published, I don’t think… Timely again, as the Dreamliner lifts back into the skies, with any luck.

Taking a leaf out of nature’s book

The new Boeing Dreamliner has barely taken to the skies and Dr Julian Vincent of Bath University’s department of mechanical engineering is nonchalant. According to Vincent, the flagship aircraft – one of the most advanced machines on the planet – is no more technically complex than a human hair.

What’s more, nature employs just two hard-working polymers to create every living thing on the planet – including that hair. An aircraft uses around 350. Most stunningly of all, every reaction and process in nature unfolds at ambient temperature and pressure, using just water as a solvent and creating no waste whatsoever.

But with 3.8 billion years of R&D on her side, it’s no small wonder that mother nature’s designs are unsurpassed by anything man has ever created.

Take a leaf. It is able to harvest and store energy from the sun’s rays and converts CO2 into sugar and oxygen along the way.

Or spider’s silk. It’s three times tougher than the strong synthetic wonder-fibre Kevlar and is stretchy, lightweight and starts with raw material of flies.

As the reality of Peak oil comes into focus and population and water consumption skyrocket, adapting to resource-constrained times is more important than ever.

Sitting in the unexpected overlap between biology and human design, biomimicry, Vincent believes, may hold the key to survival. Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature, writes that it is “a new science that studies nature’s best designs and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.”

And there are few more pertinently problematic design areas today than sustainability.

Where traditional designers see nature as a warehouse and goods, as Benyus puts it, biomimeticists see a teacher and ideas.

In its fundamental form, biomimicry is in fact nothing new. There are examples of ancient architecture that are thought to mimic insect nests, hunting techniques that emulate those of animals and Leonardo da Vinci was a famous proponent.

The resurgence that we are currently witnessing, however, is a long-overdue re-emergence of ingenuity based upon integrating (often old) knowledge with new technology – increasingly in response to climate change. As Michael Pawlyn, designer of the Eden Project and founder of Exploration Architecture, put it in a recent interview, “The carbon age has been a massive distraction. We’ve forgotten how to be ingenious as a species.” To a certain extent, biomimicry has been born out of the technological advancements – and mistakes – we have made so far.

Where Velcro represents biomimicry in its simplest form – a waste-free fastening mechanism that directly copies a sticky burr’s dispersal technique – nanotechnology, for example, is now allowing biomimeticists to effectively grow material rather than assemble it from parts extracted by the wasteful ‘heat, beat and treat’ method that has come to define modern industry.

But some of the best solutions are the most deceptively simple. Certainly, nature starts with a bare minimum of resources and energy, creates no waste and always performs well in context. To have survived on planet earth, you are, in short, adept at adapting.

One such striking idea is directly inspired by the scalloped leading edges of whales’ flippers. WhalePower have applied similar design to plane wings, wind turbine blades, fans and rotors, with the so-called ‘tubercle effect’ translating to a massive 40% performance boost.

Microscopically, the leaves of a lotus plant are sharply pimpled – they have inspired Lotusan self-cleaning paint that causes rain to ball up and roll off, collecting dirt along the way.

Butterfly wings are wonderfully bright in sunlight yet contain no pigment. They refract light – and have inspired low-energy LEDs and pollutant-free coloured materials.

Refreshingly, the lexicon of biomimetics is very positive – it’s not all about reduction, minimising, emissions, waste – it’s about opportunity, ingenuity, creation, inspiration: CO2 is nature’s building block, it is not the devil in gaseous form. Waste is potential profit, it is not a lost cause. Viruses can help good things grow.

Indeed, Pawlyn, whose work includes the Sahara Forest Project and the Plastiki exhibition, told me that biomimicry “offers so many new and transformative alternatives…solutions and possibilities.”

Sam Stier, who works alongside Benyus at the Biomimicry Institute, told me “It’s not just about reducing the negative impact [eg. of a building], but can we produce more energy than it uses, create more water than it needs?”

Turning worn images of sustainability on their head, biomimicry champions manufacturing, industry, building – all those things that are so usually vilified in green circles.

The crux of true sustainable design (and beyond) must lie in finding a way to help businesses operate in a closed loop way. Companies are quickly learning that where ingenuity treads, profits are quick to follow. Cutting back on waste and boosting efficiency makes naturally good business sense.

“It can lead to solutions that are much cheaper” said Pawlyn “the Eden Project was about a third of the cost of traditional techniques.”

Why spend millions on fertilizer and pesticides when cherry-picking the most workable characteristics of a prairie ecosystem means that plants can look after themselves?

One such success story is that of carpet manufacturer Interface, who, taking inspiration from a forest floor, has created an almost zero-waste (and inversely proportionally profiting) business model.

One of the most exciting aspects of biomimicry lies in its adaptability of scale. A component of a cell, for example, may inspire a small but essential part of a machine. A whole ecosystem may inspire the planning and infrastructure of a whole town or city. Integrating architects, engineers and local government departments along biomimetic lines transforms towns into symbiotic, living systems – as in the German town of Lunen and in the Vancouver Winter 2010 Olympic Village which are both heated by waste energy from the cities’ sewers.

Indeed, Benyus has been working alongside architecture colossus HOK in planning new sustainable cities in India, China, Brunei and Brazil.

It’s trickling down to less nerdy circles, too. Fashion designer Donna Sgro’s stunning dress of Morphotex shimmers iridescently and relies on a reflective trick of nature found in an Amazonian butterfly wing rather than any toxic dyes.

Where there’s money to be made there are sure to be lawyers. Can nature be patented? The Biomimicry Institute is busy preparing its rebuttal by compiling the asknature.org site, giving non-scientists access to a vast database of potential biomimetic solutions. As Stier told me “There’s always going to be a legal conversation around patent law. But we’re hopeful that if the information is in the public domain, there will be less chance that a principal found in nature can be owned by someone.”

As to the future of biomimetics, Vincent is sanguine. “Reality is messy – breakthroughs are identified only in hindsight.” Still, it’s undeniably a hopeful branch of science and he predicts the emergence of reactive engineering informed by bone structures, living bridges and self-regulating buildings. With innovation driven by Peak oil, Pawlyn – who told me he is “not a dreamer” – sees the uptake of natural polymers like cellulose and chitin in building within five to ten years.

Biomimicry, like the very ecological systems it admires, operates in a clean, positive loop: the more we learn from ecology to address sustainable design, the more we nurture and preserve ecology’s capacity for teaching. More than an opportunity, it’s about relinquishing a certain amount of control back to mother nature. As Benyus asked in a recent lecture: “Do we believe we’re above nature? Do we have the humbleness to let the forest be the faculty?”

Examples of biomimicry in action

Namibian sand beetle that harvests water from the air – has inspired the Sahara Forest Project which aims to turn swathes of desert in Jordan and Tunisia into farms.

The bullet train in Japan is pointed like a Kingfisher’s beak, reducing energy use by 15%.

Complex 3D computer models that allow natural, non-linear logarithms to be applied to systems, increasing their efficiency.

Lotusan self-cleaning paint, bumped like a lotus-leaf so that water balls up and collects dirt.

The Eastgate Centre, Harare, ventilated by termite-mound inspired flues.

WhalePower, scalloped-edged wind turbine blades that reduce drag by 32%. Same principles also used on plane wings.

Calera sequesters CO2 from the environment by mimicking coral reefs to make cement.

Waste water treatments inspired by mangroves and marshes to filter water naturally.

Sharklet Technologies’ antibacterial surfaces, miniature scales prevent bacteria and dirt from settling – huge potential in hospitals.

OneSun self assembling solar cells, based on how a leaf works.

GMOpal have used algorithms inspired by trees and bones to develop light, strong frames for ‘bionic’ cars.

Inhabitat’s proposed floating ‘solar lily pads’ on Glasgow’s Clyde river.

PAX Scientific’s development of air and fluid movement technologies employ the Fibonacci sequence and reduce energy use.

Morphotex, dye-free butterfly-wing inspired coloured material.

Mirasol power-saving LED displays, again inspired by butterfly wings

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