Using Mimicry to Solve Nature’s Problems

Biomimicry – the idea of drawing inspiration from nature to influence the design of materials, structures and systems.

Biomimicry influences virtually every component of modern design – the shape of our buildings, the aerodynamic designs of a fighter jet and bullet trains, the way computer networks communicate with each other, and the hydrophobic material of Olympic swimsuits.

These are big problems, but can biomimicry solve the greatest challenge of the 21st Century – Climate Change?

 

Evolution and Trial and Error

A key principle of the design process is trial and error. In drug design, chemists simply try different chemicals at (calculated) random until they find a drug with the desired effect. If you’ve ever had to code, you’d know that a good way of finding a solution (albeit, not necessarily the best one) is running through countless iterations of a program until you find one that works.

And just like a computer program, the faster and the longer you can try an iteration of a problem, the more solutions you can try, and the likelihood of finding a ‘better’ solution grows.  Could we tap into the greatest trial and error process on Earth – evolution? It’s been running for 4 billion years, as long as there has been life on Earth!

And this is where biomimicry can be useful – the Earth’s climate and environment has been ever changing for billions of years, and life on Earth has already experienced five mass extinction events in its history. Knowing how species and ecosystems have survived through these aeons of change could hold the answer to how humans can adapt to climate changes, as well as mitigate against further effects and stop a sixth.

 

Biomimicry and the Fight Against Climate Change

According to a paper put out last year at the International Conference on Applied Energy, biomimicry can mitigate against the effects of climate change through several key ways:

Energy Effectiveness and Energy Efficiency

Many things in modern engineering are high consumers of energy and major emitters of greenhouse gas emissions – mainly a result of inefficiencies in cooling and insulation. Improving energy efficiency in these parts of our lives is not only an important step in addressing climate change but also an immediate one, too. By emulating the effectiveness of living organisms and systems in how they use materials and energy – we can become less resource intensive and thereby improve our energy efficiency.

For example, Harare’s Eastgate Centre, the largest office and shopping complex in Zimbabwe, uses the structure of southern Africa termites to provide a stable temperature inside the shopping centre, with minimal mechanical cooling – thereby reducing GHG emissions. By cooling, heating and ventilating by almost entirely natural means, the Eastgate centre is consuming 90% less energy than a conventionally climate-controlled building of the same size.

At Cornell University in the US, they are making what they’ve termed a ‘synthetic tree’. Instead of using transpiration and the capillary action of roots and leaves in trees to pull water upwards, they are creating a wallpaper that they hope to put on the inside of buildings so that it will move water up without pumps. When the average person uses over 60 litres of water every time they shower, you can imagine how much water would need to be transported up a residential high rise building which can reach over 100m tall, full of many hundreds of people. You could use the energy from pumping that water 100m for your shower to instead run your laptop for a full 1 hour lecture. That’s a lot of energy.

Energy Generation

While it’s important we reduce the energy lost to consumption inefficiencies, fighting climate change will also require significant innovations in the way we generate energy.

Drawing inspiration from kelp – a type of seaweed found in shallow, clear ocean waters – Australian scientists developed a new type of tidal energy production in 2006, one that uses a series of buoyant floats (blades) able to pivot on the sea floor with the rise and fall of the sea. The movement of the blades drives hydraulic cylinders which then generate electricity.

With the help of biomimicry, engineers and scientists are improving traditional methods of renewable energy. By using the shape of the hydrodynamic edges of Humpback Whale’s flippers – wind turbines turn in much slower wind speeds and generate more electricity thanks to the more aerodynamic design. For example, the whale-inspired turbines generate the same amount of power at wind speeds of 16km per hour that conventional turbines generate at 27km per hour.

Carbon Capture and Storage

While the methods and designs listed above are great at reducing future environmental damage; biomimicry can also help fix the problems that we have already created.

The environmental principle copied here is carbon sequestration – capturing carbon from the atmosphere (or capturing it before it gets there in the first place) and storing it in a less-harmful way – usually underground.

Traditionally, carbon storage centred around ‘sweeping it under the rug and forgetting about it’. Biomimicry can, however, help carbon sequestration be much more productive and useful. For instance, the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US is working on developing an alternative material to concrete which emulates the ability of marine snails to grow crack resistant shells that are harder than any artificial ceramic. Marine snails do this through a process known as biomineralisation, where they turn carbon into more useful carbonates. This technology turns concrete production – once a heavy source of carbon emissions – into a way of storing carbon safely and usefully.

Another example of biomimicry used in carbon capture is ‘Treepods’ – large artificial tree-like structures drawing inspiration from the Dragon Tree. Found in the semi-deserted areas of Africa, the Dragon Tree has a complex network of branches supporting a wide stretching canopy. The design allows Treepods to fix solar panels on its ‘canopy’ which in turn powers an air cleaning system fixed along its ‘branches’ that remove carbon from the air.

 

Biomimicry is obviously very useful in tackling environmental problems, but it doesn’t solve the cause of these problems – our unsustainable way of life. Even if we mitigate future environmental problems using biomimicry, we will still need to deal with the current impacts of climate and environmental change. It’s going to take a lot more than some clever science and a keen eye for nature to solve this global issue.

And perhaps, the principle, of ‘fixing it’ is wrong. A solution solves an existing problem; medicine cures the sick. We are gambling with our species survival, a game where the world needs to get better every time. Ingenuity must outstrip greed, or everything is over. Perhaps, not playing is the smarter idea.