Education

Using nature as mentor

 By RP Siegel

As businesses look around for models to build new products that are more sustainable, both in terms of efficiency and waste, nature has proven to be an excellent teacher. This is the thrust behind the Biomimicry Institute, a group of scientists and researchers that continuously explore nature, looking for examples of processes that effectively and sustainably meet the requirements that we are often looking for. Some examples include adhesives made by emulating mussels, structures inspired by fruit that can safely drop from tall trees, and wind turbines inspired by swimming fish, and an energy management system that was developed by copying the swarming action of bees. RP Siegel speaks with principals at the Biomimicry Institute about these and other examples, with particular emphasis of applications for energy generation or energy conservation…

(Cover photo by www.inhabitat.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the sustainability movement is the realization that in striving to make our economy more compatible with nature, we can learn a great deal in the process. After all, nature has had billions of years to develop solutions to many of the same problems we face. They are out there, thousands of them, hidden in some of the most unexpected places, just waiting to be discovered. This search has taken root as a new field of study known as biomimicry, which is described by the Biomimicry Institute as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.”

Biomimicry was named after the seminal book by Janine Benyus, who coined the phrase, and is the founder of the Biomimicry Institute. The Institute pursues a dual mission: acting as consultants to companies looking to incorporate biomimetic principles into the design of their products and processes, and also as educators, to spread what has proven to be a very beneficial set of ideas, as widely as possible.

Megan Schuknecht is Director of Design Challenges at the Biomimicry Institute. After working for several years on the for-profit consulting side of the business, she moved over to the educational side. Initially targeted at students, the Biomimcry Global Design Challenge, now in its second year, is open to professionals as well. Schuknecht offered some examples of biomimicry that have benefitted either energy production and efficiency (summarized below).

Wooden Orchids reimagines the shopping mall as a living, breathing ecotopia (www.inhabitat.com)

Pax Scientific is a husband and wife engineering team that has grown to commercialize a number of products including fans, mixers, wastewater treatment products and desalination technology. All of these utilize fluid flow and all are based on principles that they have learned by studying nature and the principle of streamlining. Utilizing the Fibonacci number sequence, a mathematical pattern often found in nature, Pax has developed fluid handling products like the Lily impeller, inspired by the Cala Lily, that are quieter and far more efficient with lower drag than the items they replaced. The Lily impeller is only eight inches tall, but it can effectively mix millions of gallons of water using minimal energy. Pax CEO and co-founder Jay Harmon, who has also written a book about biomimicry, The Shark’s Paintbrush, calls this “the next industrial revolution.”

Another example is Encycle (formerly Regen Energy). After studying communication patterns of honeybees, they came up with an energy management software solution based on Swarm Logic™. It uses retrofit controllers that are attached to devices that consume a lot of energy. Using wireless technology, they coordinate with other controllers on site to determine when some of the devices can be shut down. Compatible with existing building management automation systems, it’s a form of demand management that, according to company info, can save 15-30% of energy consumption and demand charges.

(Imagine by www.biomimicry.org)

Then there are the wind turbines that can actually benefit from being close to other turbines. This was a finding of John Dabiri and his team at Stanford when they studied swimming schools of fish. One of the big drawbacks of wind power is that it requires a great deal of space to allow the turbines to not impact one another’s performance by creating turbulence. By studying fish, Dabiri found a way to locate groups of specially designed vertical axis turbines, such that the proximity of other turbines actually becomes beneficial.

One final example is Blue Planet, which produces cement in a room temperature process that uses alkaline chemistry to grow a form of cement much as a coral reef grows in the ocean. The process actually pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and creates building products from it. This can effectively replace a very energy-intensive, carbon emitting process with a carbon-negative one.

Many more of these concepts can be found on the Asknature.org, the website associated with the educational side of the Biomimicry Institute, where answers to many innovators’ questions can be found. Some of these are still concepts, others are products on the market today. Also quite useful is Tapping Into Nature, a site hosted by Terrapin Bright Green. It gives a great overview of the field in a brilliant infographic.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.