The Science of Biomimicry
23 Nov 2009
Biomimicry is a new discipline that studies Nature and uses it as a blueprint to design and build more sustainably. Why? Because Nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems.
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Biomimicry is a new discipline that studies Nature and uses it as a blueprint to design and build more sustainably. Why? Because Nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems that we humans are grappling with. Animals, plants and microbes are the consummate engineers. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, they know what works, what is appropriate and importantly, what will last.’
Janine Benyus is a renowned Biomimicry expert and an author of six books. As co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild and president of the Biomimicry Institute, she recently launched a new website called Ask Nature ñ an online public database of bio-inspired literature. The aim is that designers and inventors everywhere, will consult the site when starting projects, to ask: ‘What would nature do?’
Janine has received several accolades for her recent work, including the United Nations Champion of the Earth Award 2009′ and TIME International’s Hero of the Environment’. The following is an excerpt of her speech given at the TED Global Conference earlier this year.
Transcript: © TEDGlobal 2009
If I could reveal anything that is hidden from us, at least in modern cultures, it would be to reveal something that we’ve forgotten ñ something we used to know as well as we know our own names: that we live in a competent universe; that we are part of a brilliant planet and we are surrounded by genius.
Biomimicry is a new discipline, that tries to learn from those geniuses, to take design advice from them… I’m surrounded by genius ñ the organisms and the eco systems that all know how to live gracefully on this planet. And this is what I’d tell you to remember if you ever forgot … This is what happens every year. This is what keeps its promise … Spring happens.
Imagine designing Spring! Imagine the organisation, the orchestration, the timing, the co-ordination; without top-down laws, policies or climate change protocols. It happens every year … lots of showing off … lots of love in the air … lots of grand openings … and the organisms, I promise you, have their priorities in order.
There was a wasps’ nest that I had let grow in my yard, right outside my door … My neighbour, who was about seven or eight years old … asked me, how had I made the nest and I replied: ‘You know, the wasps actually made it themselves.’ We looked at it together. It was so beautifully done; so architectural; so precise.
It occurred to me, that he had already come to believe the myth; that if something was well done, that we must have done it. How did he not know that we’re not the first ones to build? We’re not the first ones to process cellulose. We’re not the first ones to make paper or optimise packing space or waterproof or heat and cool a structure. We’re not the first ones to build houses for our young.
What is happening now, in this field of Biomimicry, is that people are beginning to remember that other organisms ñ the rest of the natural world ñ are doing what we need to do and they’re doing it in a way that has allowed them to live on this planet for billions of years. These people, the Biomimics, are nature’s apprentices … They have said to themselves: ‘What if, every time I started to invent something, I asked: how would nature solve this?’
For example, take this engineer who works at JR West ñ the people who make the bullet train. It was called the bullet train because it was rounded in front but each time it went into a tunnel, it would build up a pressure wave … and create a sonic boom as it left the tunnel. His boss said: ‘Find a way to quieten this train.’
Now, the engineer just happened to be a birdwatcher … He studied a film about kingfishers and saw how they enter the water without a splash, so they can see the fish. He thought: ‘What if we do this ñ quieten the train; make it go 10 per cent faster on 15 per cent less electricity.’
We are not the first ones to have to protect ourselves from bacteria either. A Galapagos Shark has no bacteria on its surface, no barnacles ñ and not because it goes fast. It actually basks, because it’s a slow moving shark. How does it keep its body free of bacteria build-up? Well it doesn’t do it with a chemical. [ … ]
The architecture of the pattern on the shark’s skin keeps bacteria from being able to land and adhere. A company called Sharklet Technologies are putting these denticles on surfaces in hospitals to keep bacteria from landing, which is better than dousing them with anti-bacterials or harsh cleansers that many organisms are now becoming resistant to. [ … ]
Also, organisms do not think of carbon dioxide as a poison … Plants and organisms that make shells and coral think of it as a building block. A cement company called Clara … have borrowed the recipe from the coral reef and are using carbon dioxide as a building block in their material. Cement usually emits a tonne of carbon dioxide for every tonne it weighs. Now, they’re reversing that equation and it’s actually sequestering half a tonne.
… Trees and bones are constantly reforming themselves along lines of stress. This algorithm has now been put into a software programme that is being used to make bridges and to build lightweight beams. GM Opel used it to produce the skeleton that you see in what’s called their bionic car … using a minimum amount of material, as an organism must, for the maximum amount of strength. [ … ]
Nature is nano. You hear a lot of worry about nanotechnology and nano-particles. What’s really interesting is that not many people have been asking: ‘How can we consult nature about how to make nano-technology safe?’ Nature’s been doing it for a long time. Bedding nano-particles in a material for instance. In fact, sulphur reducing bacteria, as part of its synthesis, will emit as a by-product, nano-particles into the water. But right after that, they emit a protein that actually gathers and aggregates those nano-particles, so that they fall out of solution.
Now, there is a group of scientists that are making what they call a synthetic tree’ because, they are saying: ‘There is no pump at the bottom of a tree.’ Instead, its capillary action and transpiration pulls water up, a drop at a time, pulling it up through the roots. They’re creating a kind of wallpaper and thinking of putting it on the insides of buildings, to move water up without pumps.
Some electric eels create 600 volts of electricity with the same chemicals that are in your body. Even more interesting is that 600 volts doesn’t fry them. We use PVC to sheath wires for insulation. But how are these organisms insulating against their own electric charge? These are questions that we’ve yet to ask. [ … ]
We are in a long line of organisms to come to this planet. So, we need to ask ourselves: ‘How can we live here gracefully over the long haul?’ How can we do what life has learnt to do? How can we create conditions conducive to life?
One of the big projects I have been honoured to work on is a new website … It’s called AskNature.org … The scientists, who are contributing, are answering a question: ‘What can we learn from this organism?’ … Eventually, any inventor, anywhere in the world, will be able, in the moment of creation, to type in: ‘How does nature remove salt from water?’ Then up will come mangroves and sea turtles and your own kidneys.
We’ll begin to be able to get in touch with all these incredible models ñ these Elders that have been here far, far longer than we have. And with their help, we will learn how to live on this Earth and on this home that’s ours, but not ours alone.
To watch Janine Benyus deliver this speech in full visit
Biomimicry expert Janine Benyus at the Bioneers Conference 2008
Photo: © Tim Porter / bioneers.org
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