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What Would Nature Do?
Sarah Kuck, 15 May 09

Fresh Ideas from Janine Benyus on How We Can Learn from Nature

Janine_Benyus.jpgWhen we emulate nature to solve human problems sustainably, we are practicing biomimicry. This discipline is one of our favorite ideas here at Worldchanging, as we see its great potential for helping the human-made environment function more like the natural environment. Biomimicry guru Janine Benyus discussed this idea and more with designers and architects at last week’s Living Future unconference in Portland, Ore., where she told those gathered to ask themselves, 'how would nature solve green building challenges?'

Benyus is the author of six books on biomimicry, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, and president of the Biomimicry Institute. I caught up with her briefly at a press conference where we continued this discussion and talked about the latest ideas and projects that she finds fascinating now.

Smart Materials
JB: One of my favorite ideas is embedding our materials with sensors so they can sense when they are damaged, and perhaps can heal themselves. It’s a new way toward durability, which, when appropriate, is sustainability.

Anchors of bull kelp protect it from torque by being flexible.

Remediation as the new mining
JB: What we’ve got right now is that we’ve taken the lithosphere, things from the Earth’s crust, and we’ve used them and we’ve dissipated them. Metals are available, they just happen to be in very minute quantities in water streams, places they shouldn’t be. In the natural world, organisms are very good at concentrating disparate resources. So some of the most interesting technologies to me are ones that are using a thin film chemistry that would mimic chelating molecules, which are metal scavenging molecules that bacteria have (your body is full of them), on a thin film. You can imagine taking, for instance, e-waste -- grinding it up and making it into a slurry, and using this thin film to selectively pull out metals from that mixed waste stream to recover that metal. Basically it’s mining in a box. You’re taking that sort of technology into a river, putting it into a waste stream coming out of an industrial plant.

So it’s actually different from filtering, what it is is concentrating disparate things. So I am interested in mining landfills. Mining what’s already above ground. Thinking of remediation as the new mining. I live in a hard rock mining state and I would not like to go into the earth’s bowels anymore, when there is so much that is already above the lithosphere that we should be mining. The problem is that it’s too disparate. And that’s something I know that nature can help us with because it’s so good at it.

Air to Water
JB: Nature is also really good at finding water in places we wouldn’t think of. There’s a whole bunch of species that never take a drink, they pull water out of water vapor and they pull water out of fog. We have to get good at that, too.

In humid areas -- think of Atlanta, in the middle of summer -- one building's air conditioning is using enormous amounts of fossil fuel to cool wet, humid air. Cooling humid air is really energy intensive. If you would dry the air out, you can feel comfortable in hot, dry air. The problem is we don’t have a really good way yet to dry out that air. But there are organisms that know how to pull water vapor out of air. So mimicking their technologies, we could get both potable water for the building and solve the other problem of having less of a cooling load.

Grooves on spikes of thorny devil lizard provide drinking water by drawing condensed dew to mouth by capillary action.

Green Chemistry
JB: At the base of everything we make is chemistry. The natural world has this incredible recipe book of ways that it goes about reactions. They are done in water instead of sulfuric acid, organic solvents they’re called. It’s a complete flip from the way we do it. Industrial chemistry heats things up to high temperatures, puts it under enormous pressures and forces molecules together with toxic chemicals. So it’s heat, beat and treat. In the rest of the natural world it’s completely opposite. It’s done in the way the spider makes its silk, the way your bones and your teeth are made, the antlers on a caribou are made, the seashell -- inside an abalone -- how those ceramics are made, they're all made at low temperature or body temperature, in water, with no toxic chemicals. So we know it works. Now, what green chemistry is starting to say is ‘here’s how we do it in industrial chemistry, now how does nature do that same family of reactions?’

That’s one of the things we are trying to do with our new interactive online resource Ask Nature. You can type in all kinds of design and engineering functions, there’s also a whole chemistry set, so our dream is that you can type in oxidation reaction, and up would come the organism and their recipes. You don’t use the organisms to do the chemistry. That’s an important differentiation. But what you do is, you borrow that recipe.

Leaf-like Solar Cells
JB: Most solar cells do not work the way a leaf does, but dye-sensitized solar cells do. There are many companies working on this, G24I in Wales and DyeSol in Australia. They now have dye-sensitized cells that are incorporated into steel cladding. So Tata, the big steel company, is now putting solar cells that are based on leaves within steel clad. There are window manufacturers putting these solar cells into windows, too.

These solar cells are not as efficient as PV cells are -- not yet. But they work in vertical applications (they don’t need to be horizontal), they work in shade, they work indoors, they work in high heat (which degrades PV cells performance quite a bit) and they work from dawn ‘til dusk. They are non-toxic because they are titanium dioxide, rather than cadmium or telluride. If you look at the other thin film solar cells, they all depend on rare noble metals and toxic, peaking materials. And they are a fifth of the cost.

Wings of Morpho butterflies create color by diffracting and scattering light.

Solar for the South
JB: In the Biomimicry Ventures Group that I started with Paul Hawken we are going to be bringing out a leaf-inspired solar cell that produces energy for 25 cents a watt. It’s not going to be on the roofs in the North, it’s a solar cell for the rest of the world, the developing world. The market is really responding to demand here, but not necessarily in the rest of the world. What we’re doing is a completely non-toxic manufacture, on any substrate, that will hopefully be 25 cents a watt, but it may only last five years. You can recharge the dye in a solar cell, and that will create jobs in many parts of the world.

Everybody in other solar endeavors is very hung up on efficiency -- getting that last little bit of efficiency. But our feeling is that that business model is wrong there. A five-year recharge allows you to upgrade. So the idea is to make the manufacture inexpensive and non-toxic enough that it can happen anywhere. It doesn’t have to be behind razor wire in a centralized manufacturing plant somewhere. We’re going to try to have the first plant in the United States, and tie into the green jobs idea. That’s the first of many biomimetic inventions that we’re going to try to bring to the point of maturity so we can spin them off.

Teaching Biology Functionally
JB: Right now, [at the Biomimicry Institute] we’re working with at least 30 professors, so that if you are interested in biology you may be able to go take biology taught functionally, which is the new career. The way this works the best is when biology students are sitting right next to the design students, and they take biology taught functionally together.

So every week you are learning how does nature filter, how does nature pump, how does nature create color, how does nature communicate, how does nature calm traffic? And the students sit together, and then they move together to the biomimetic design lab. At the University of Minnesota, architecture students spend a year doing bio-inspired building. And the biology students who have taken the same class go with them. So what happens at the end of that is you have biologist who now know how to sit at the design table, and you wind up with architects who have been exposed to working with the biologists.

Image credits:
Front page: Flickr/oskrivna linjer
Inside, in order: Dustin Kirk, Ask August Rode, Paul Duncan
, Sea Moon

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There's another potential class of leaf-mimicking solar cells, that orient the photon absorption and charge removal along perpendicular axes, as to chloroplasts (and our retinal cells by the way - in most cases nature has optimized for light absorption by making the path length for the photon long, and for the chemistry short). Some of this research into "radial junction" or "microwire" PV is going on at Caltech. I went to a talk about it and wrote it up a couple of weeks ago over here

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 12 May 09

1] Solar may not be economically viable in isolation, but by installing the panels in deserts and optimizing other properties such as reflectivity, the desert would be cooled, encouraging rain and vegetation. Reflecting the sun's energy back into space would enable the world's CO2 level to be higher. A 3% reduction in the sun's total heat input would allow a level of CO2 12X what it is today!

2] Rather than changing the total air in an air conditioned house, why not filter it and inject just more Oxygen? This technology has seen dramatic advances in recent years.

3] We think we are helping things by preserving forests, but when the trees die, they decay by emitting methane, which is 20X more detrimental than the CO2 that would result from this wood burning. Of course, we prevent this from happening by putting out forest fires!

4] We need people to go back to living on the land, cull the dead wood, let it decay in a reactor (which is 50X faster than nature) and capture the resulting methane to generate our own electricity, heat our hot water and living spaces and compress it to methanol to fuel our vehicles.

5] There is no need for people to congregate in cities any more and commute to work; 90% of office work can now be done at home. The reduced travel alone would go a long way toward solving the energy problem.

6] We need to look at what other nations are doing; the Scandanavian countries and France in particular. France is 80% nuclear and hasn't had any of the problems the critics claim would occur.

7] These are all original comments on my part, but I bet you don't print this.

Posted by: Dick Heintz on 16 May 09

I'm thinking about customers need to "de-shop" all materials should return to the original manufacturer for repair, reuse, recycle, upgrade, et, but there is no reverse supply chain so the cradle to cradle design has not been achieved 100%, if our products and services are based on mining and drilling they are inherently un sustainable therefore the need to use renewable natural materials but could biomimicry help us understand how to achieve the same levels of functionality and comfort that we are used to? How would nature manufacture products for us?
Most of the biomimickry inspired products are still manufactured by conventional means and using non renewable materials.

Posted by: Samuel Bautista Lazo on 1 Jun 09

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