Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Biomimicry -- by Janine Benyus

Excerpts from Janine Benyus' Biomimicry Institute webpages:

Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new discipline that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example. I think of it as "innovation inspired by nature."

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.

Like the viceroy butterfly imitating the monarch, we humans are imitating the best adapted organisms in our habitat. We are learning, for instance, how to harness energy like a leaf, grow food like a prairie, build ceramics like an abalone, self-medicate like a chimp, create color like a peacock, compute like a cell, and run a business like a hickory forest.

The conscious emulation of life's genius is a survival strategy for the human race, a path to a sustainable future. The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.

If we want to consciously emulate nature's genius, we need to look at nature differently. In biomimicry, we look at nature as model, measure, and mentor. The Biomimicry Guild and its collaborators have developed a practical design tool, called the Biomimicry Design Spiral, for using nature as model.

  • Wes Jackson (The Land Institute) is studying prairies as a model for an agriculture that features edible, perennial polycultures and that would sustain, rather than strain, the land.
  • Thomas and Ana Moore and Devens Gust ( University of Arizona) are studying how a leaf captures energy, in hopes of making a molecular-sized solar cell. Their light-sensitive "pentad" mimics a photosynthetic reaction center, creating a tiny, sun-powered battery.
  • Jeffrey Brinker (Sandia National Lab) has mimicked the abalone's self-assembly process to create an ultra-tough optically clear glass in a low-temperature, silent manufacturing process.
  • J. Herbert Waite ( University of California Santa Barbara) is studying the blue mussel, which attaches itself to rocks via an adhesive that can do what ours can't-cure and stick underwater. Various teams are attempting to mimic this underwater glue.
  • Peter Steinberg (Biosignal) has created an anti-bacterial compound that mimics the sea purse. These red algae keeps bacteria from landing on surfaces by jamming their communication signals with an environmentally friendly compound called furanone.
  • Bruce Roser (Cambridge Biostability) has developed a heat-stable vaccine storage that eliminates the need for costly refrigeration. The process is based on a natural process that enables the resurrection plant to remain in a desiccated state for years.
  • David Knight and Fritz Vollrath ( Oxford University, Spinox) are mimicking the spider's sustainable manufacturing process to find a way for humans to manufacture fibers without heat or toxins.
  • Daniel Morse (UC Santa Barbara) has learned to mimic the silica-production process employed by diatoms. This could signal a low-energy, low-toxin route to computer components.
  • Joanna Aizenberg (Lucent) has mimicked the process by which the brittlestar self-assembles distortion-free lenses out of seawater.
  • Jay Harman (PAXscientific) has created a super-efficient fan blades, aerators, and propellers based on the geometry of the flow-friendly spiral found in seashells, kelp, and rams horns.
  • Andre K. Geim ( University of Manchester) has developed a glue-free, yet sticky, tape modeled on the dry physical adhesion of the gecko's "setae" ---tiny bristles on their feet that adhere to surfaces through Van Der Waals forces. The sustainability potential here is in "design for disassembly." Assembling products using gecko tape instead of glue would allow recyclers to disassemble products without adhesive contamination. [He also invented graphene]
  • Richard Wrangham (Harvard) is zeroing in on medicinal compounds useful to humans by watching chimps heal themselves with plants from nature's medicine cabinet.
  • Thomas Eisner (emeritus, Cornell) is letting the behavior of insects tell him which plants may be good bets for new drugs. If insects ignore a leaf, he figures the plant is full of secondary compounds-defenses for the plant and drugs for us.
  • Various researchers in Industrial Ecology are looking for ways to apply nature's lessons of economy, efficiency, cooperation, and rootedness to the marketplace. Closed-loop eco-parks, patterned after mature ecosystems like redwood forests, are now being built in Chattanooga, Brownsville, Baltimore, and Cape Charles.
  • Jeremy Mabbitt (Codefarm) and numerous other companies are mimicking natural selection as an optimizing tool in computer software called genetic algorithms.
See also Benyus' book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997), her resource list, and Wikipedia on biomimicry and life cycle assessment.

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