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WC Retro: Biomimicry 101

biocomp01.gif By Jeremy Faludi, posted October 13, 2005.

You probably hear the word "biomimicry" bandied about a lot, but a recent article in an otherwise respectable technical journal showed me how little most people know about it. So here's a quick primer on what it is, why it's useful, and why you'll be seeing a lot more of it in years to come.

Biomimicry In A Nutshell

Biomimicry--usually called Bionics in Europe--is getting ideas from nature for the way we make or do things. For example, Velcro was inspired by the way burrs stuck to fur--the scratchy side of Velcro acts like burrs, the soft side acts like fur. Biomimicry, when well done, is not slavish imitation; it is inspiration--using the principles which nature has demonstrated to be successful design strategies. (In the early days of mechanized flight, the best designs were not the ornithopters, which most completely imitated birds, but the fixed-wing craft that used the principle of airfoil cross-section in their wings.) Biomimicry can operate on any scale, from super-adhesive tape that imitates a gecko's skin to a high-rise building that imitates a termite mound for passive air-conditioning.

Humans have been getting ideas from other animals and plants as long as we've been around; Leonardo DaVinci once said, "Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain." But historically speaking, its application has been haphazard, and has not particularly been used for green design. Janine Benyus, with her book "Biomimicry", was the first to propose that learning from nature would be the perfect tool for eco-design. After all, what does is ecologically sustainable design, but design in accordance with the natural world? She and others are also investigating whether biomimicry can be an actual methodology, rather than occasional serendipity.

Biomimicry In Action

The core of Benyus's ideas is treating nature as Model, Measure, and Mentor. Nature as Model means that we can get ideas from organisms to solve our problems--whatever we are trying to do, there are usually several organisms that have evolved successful strategies (like burrs on fur). Nature as Measure means we can look to the natural world to see what is possible--for instance, spider silk is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar, but the spider is a "factory" smaller than your little finger, which uses no boiling sulphuric acid or high-pressure extruders, and whose only raw materials are crickets and flies. Nature as Mentor means we should change our relationship with nature, recognizing that we are part of it, not separate from it; as such, we should treat it as a partner and teacher rather than merely a resource-extraction site.

Biomimicry can be achieved on different levels, according to benyus: form or function, the process level, and the system level. Biomimetic forms and functions are the most common--they include all of the previous examples. Biomimetic processes are harder to achieve, but tend to have bigger benefits--they are cases where the actual manufacturing of a product is done as nature would do it, such as Sandia National Laboratory's self-assembling coatings which grow out of a solution the way seashells do in sea water. Biomimetic systems are closed-loop lifecycles, where outputs and by-products become inputs for something else; as McDonough and Braungart put it in Cradle to Cradle,it's where "waste equals food". There are success stories like the city of Kalundborg, Denmark, but this is a hard thing to do--most products have hundreds of different components, materials, and wastes, so complex interdependency webs are usually required to become 100% closed-loop. This may be where nature has the most to teach us--everything alive is part of multiple complex webs of predator/prey, waste/fertilizer, parasite/host, symbiant, scavenger, etc., only a few of which have equivalents in modern industry. I would argue that the kind of biomimicry used most frequently today is actually a fourth level, the design level. This includes genetic algorithms, and iterative design (making multiple prototypes, user-testing them to find the favorites, then mixing and matching elements to create another generation of prototypes which are in turn user-tested, ad infinitum.) Biomimicry on the design level can produce things that are biomimetic on the form/function, process, and system levels, but it can also produce things that nature has never evolved (such as an oddly shaped satellite antenna.)

Not everything involving biology is biomimetic. "Bio-utilization" is using parts of organisms as raw materials--whether it be a house made of wood, or a cancer drug made from horseshoe crab blood. "Bio-assistance" is the domestication of organisms--anything from herding sheep to using algae to make hydrogen for fuel cells. These strategies can also be used for green design, and are sometimes used in combination. For example, John Todd's "Living Machine" sewage treatment systems use live plants and microbes (bio-assistance) which are selected and arranged to imitate a natural ecosystem (biomimicry). Living Machines are not only more environmentally friendly than standard methods of sewage treatment, they turn what is normally a hidden eyesore into a vibrant greenhouse, and in some installations they have become centerpieces of the architecture. Genetically modified organisms are used for bio-assistance and bio-utilization. While they are often used to invent sketchy things like goats producing spider silk or glow-in-the-dark bunnies, they can also be used for green engineering. (Though even these applications sometimes fall into ethical grey areas.)

Biomimicry In The Future

In the coming decades, you will see more and more biomimicry, bio-assistance, and bio-utilization. As Kevin Kelly said in his book Out of Control,l"The world of the made will increasingly come to resemble the world of the born." The main obstacle historically has been that nature builds things radically differently than humans do--building from DNA upwards, gathering a few molecules at a time to self-assemble into larger structures; much of biology's best engineering happens at the nanoscale, with extraordinarily sophisticated organic chemistry. Traditional industry, by contrast, has made things using "heat, beat, and treat" methods, where a large block of raw material is cut away, bent, melted, cast, and otherwise manipulated until it achieves the desired form; industrial chemistry often happens at high temperatures and pressures which require huge energy inputs. Building in this way is inherently wasteful and resource-intensive, but so far it has been the only way we know to get things done, because it is simpler than biological building.

Now, however, chemists are improving their grasp on the complex organic realm, where material can be built up a few molecules at a time in specific places, effectively growing material rather than having to cut it away. For instance, MIT researchers are attempting to grow batteries like abalone shells grow, and are using virus microbes to do it with.), and carbon nanotubes have been used to create self-assembling electronics (as well as a million other exciting things). Other researchers are learning how to get from nanoscale materials to macro-scale products, like the nanotube ribbon which can be produced at seven meters per minute. As our nanotech and biotech capabilities improve, it will become easier and easier to grow things rather than build them. Pollution regulations and growing awareness of resource scarcity are also starting to motivate industry to find non-toxic chemistry, which will drive people towards chemistry as nature does it--in water, at ambient temperature and pressure.

Those of you who are designers or engineers may be saying, "this is all very well, but how do you DO biomimicry?" That is another article in itself. Perhaps next week.

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