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Alex Steffen, 15 Oct 03

Biomimicry - the redesign of industrial processes and products based on new understandings of how natural systems and creatures accomplish similar ends - may be the most promising branch of the growing sustainable design movement.

As Janine Benyus puts it:

"Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new science 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.

The examples are inspiring:

"Color without paint: Packaging’s final coat of paint or ink gives it an environmental black eye. Organisms use two methods to create color without paint: internal pigments and the structural color that makes tropical butterflies, peacocks, and hummingbirds so gorgeous. A peacock is a completely brown bird. Its “colors” result from light scattering off regularly spaced melanin rods, and interference effects through thin layers of keratin (the same stuff as your fingernails). What if packages could be dipped in something clear and nontoxic that played with light to create the illusion of color? Iridigm, in San Francisco, is using structural color ideas from tropical butterflies to create a PDA screen that can be easily read in sunlight. In Japan, researchers are developing a liquid crystal display sign whose structure can be set using UV light, then reset for a different message, all without ink."

"Protection from microbes: To protect against microbial squatters, a biomimic would look for clues in the skins of organisms that manage to keep themselves slime-free. Red and green algae (kelp) are able to stabilize a normally reactive compound called bromine to fend off microbes without harming the alga. Nalco engineer William McCoy borrowed this stabilization recipe to create StabrexTM, a chlorine alternative that keeps industrial cooling systems microbe-free."

"Staying clean without detergent: If the goal is to keep packaging clean, inspiration is hiding in the microscopic surfaces of leaves. Plants like the swampland lotus can’t afford to have dirt interfere with their sun bathing. Using powerful scopes, German scientists found that lotus leaves have mountainous surfaces that keep dirt particles teetering on the peaks rather than adhering. Rainwater balls up and rolls the loose particles away like a snowball removing leaves from your lawn. A number of new products are available in self-cleaning lotus-effect surfaces, including roof shingles, car paint, and a building façade paint, Lotusan, made by ispo. The paint dries with lotus-like bumps, and rainwater cleans the building."

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