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Biomimicry draws on nature’s billions of years of R&D for design solutions

Biomimicry draws on nature’s billions of years of R&D for design solutions

Jul 9, 2019
Industries from tech to manufacturing are bringing biologists on board.
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If you’ve got a design problem you need to fix, you could lock a bunch of engineers into a room to help brainstorm. Or you could look to the natural world. Biomimicry is the practice of replicating adaptations found in nature. You might try to improve a solar panel by looking at how leaves photosynthesize sunlight. Or those body imaging scanners at airports? They use some technology based on the echolocation of certain bats.

Eons of natural selection have made for a wealth of data that’s ripe for the picking. All types of companies are increasingly bringing biologists into the design process from the earliest stages.

Marketplace’s Jed Kim spoke with Janine Benyus, the co-founder of the biology-inspired consulting company Biomimicry 3.8. (The number refers to the 3.8 billion years of life on the planet.) Benyus also wrote the book “Biomimcry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” in 1997. The idea — and the term for it — were just emerging. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Janine Benyus: When I was first looking for examples of this back in 1994 and 1995, it was hard to find. It was mostly in academia. And now it’s kind of jumped into industry.

Jed Kim: Where does a biomimicry idea originate? Is it a biologist saying, “Hey, this plant does something that can be really useful for solar power,” or is it like a solar engineer calling up a botanist and saying, “Have any cool plant research I can use?”

Benyus: Both happen. But now that it’s jumped to industry, they have functional challenges. That’s how most biomimicry is done now: [functional] challenge first. And it’s kind of amazing because biology is not organized by function. So if Sherwin-Williams calls you up and says, “We want a different way to make paint, and we want to make the color yellow without cadmium,” we’ll go into the natural world and find how nature makes yellow.

You can begin to look at things like woodpeckers and how do they protect their brain when they’re pecking? Impact resistance is the function.

-Janine Benyus

Kim: What are the challenges getting different fields to play ball with each other?

Benyus: Very often we’ll bring in a biologist and then we’ll also hire an engineer to be literally the spokesperson, a translator between the two. Because that’s the biggest thing — language. What breaks through that is to break everything down into function. An engineer will come to us and say, “We want a helmet that protects against concussions.” What you must do is say, “What are you actually trying to do?” Then you can look at lots of things, you can begin to look at things like woodpeckers, and how do they protect their brain when they’re pecking? Impact resistance is the function. For instance, Bauer [Hockey] developed an anti-concussion product based on study of the woodpecker. It’s a small band that goes around the neck. So it’s not a helmet at all. Once we get down to that level of function, then the differences between engineering and biology go away. [Note: The product is now sold as the Q-Collar, no longer associated with Bauer.]

Kim: The tech industry is not exactly known for humility. How is biomimicry different than thinking about it as hacking nature for an answer in a way that might steal ideas from the natural world but isn’t adding to sustainability?

Benyus: Biomimicry has these three areas that you can look at: You can just mimic form. Then you can look at process, which is how do you make it? Then what happens to it at the end of its life? That is the third one, which is mimicking at the systems level. That’s something called circular economy, where a lot of people right now are thinking about the life cycle of a product and the reincarnation. What does it become in its next life? That material flow story is where we get, I think, into the deepest rather than shallow biomimicry.

Kim: In biomimicry, nature obviously is incredibly important because it’s the source for ideas. Meanwhile, with climate change, I feel like we’re always getting new headlines that talk about impending mass extinctions. Is there an urgency to growing this field as fast as possible?

Benyus: Absolutely. I have to sort of keep the panic at bay because I read the articles that talk about the hemorrhaging of life and the new 1 million species are going to be facing extinction within a very short time frame.

Kim: Yeah, like the loss of a lot of source material.

Benyus: That’s a loss of not just one adaptation, but so many. You look at one organism, like the shark, and you think, “OK, we can learn about drag reduction because they’re so fast and sleek.” You can also learn about how their sensory apparatus that can help with our transportation. But on the skin of the Galapagos shark there’s absolutely no bacteria. And it’s not chemical, it’s a physical nano-structures, and bacteria don’t like to land there. So a company called Sharklet in Colorado mimicked this, and it’s now a physical antibacterial for hospitals, like a thin film you put on doorknobs and bed rails, and it doesn’t breed for resistance.

And as a biologist watching [species extinction] it’s heartbreaking for me. And one of the ways that I try to get people to want to protect this planet is by saying they’re geniuses. We’re surrounded by geniuses and to respect them enough in that way to say, “Let’s keep them around because there’s much that they can teach us.”

Related links: more insight from Jed Kim

The military is using biotechnology to solve problems like radiation, sunburn and malaria. Breaking Defense has an article about some measures like engineering microorganisms to make naturally insect-repelling uniforms. Or even plants that react to chemical or radiation leaks. Fun fact: The military sometimes refers to mosquitoes as “arthropods of military significance.”

I spoke with Janine Benyus about the potential for lost advances, if climate change leads to a lot of species extinctions. New research from MIT indicates that unchecked carbon emissions could push us past a threshold, after which the carbon cycle goes crazy, and Earth would likely experience its sixth mass extinction.

And finally, we’ve talked about biomimicry on our show before, although perhaps not calling it that. Back in October, I spoke with Eric Loth, a University of Virginia engineering professor, about a new form of wind turbine that’s supposed to reach taller than the Empire State Building and whose design is based on the leaves of palm trees.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Eve Troeh Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer