Biomimicry: Letting Nature Show Us the Way(s)

Sep 4, 2017 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Biomimicry: Letting Nature Show Us the Way(s)

image by: Bruno de Giusti

From creating material for building structures to synthesizing energy, for eons nature has invented ways to perform myriad tasks in environmentally sustainable ways. So the more humans learn and emulate these lessons, the better off we'll be.

Biological evolution is the ultimate trial-and-error forum. Since the origin of life on Earth, living organisms have evolved unguided down wildly forking paths, progressing by way of accidental experimentation (by way of genetic mutation). Some such "experiments" take hold in a population because on average they benefit the survival of that animal in that particular environment (adaptation). As generation gives way to generation a million, a billion, a trillion times over, the adaptations that remain are the ones that do a useful job and do it efficiently.

Enter Homo sapiens sapiens a scant 150,000 years ago. Then came abstract thought, symbolic language, and the beginning of memetic evolution, the combination of which led to what we generally refer to as technology and all the jobs it allows us to do beyond our biological limitations.

But although our technological innovations have been limited by the laws of nature (airplanes don't defy gravity, for example), often we have innovated completely novel ways of doing what we want to do, rather than simply imitating how nature has succeeded—often far more efficiently—in doing the same job.

For example, consider how we make things blue. Once upon a time our ancestors saw blue ochers and iron oxides and thought something along the lines of "Ooo, pretty!" Eventually they figured out ways to grind these earthen products into powder and apply them to skin and other surfaces. Although they didn't understand the science, they were working with pigments. And while pigmentation is an evolutionarily proven way to color skin, hair, etc., when it occurs naturally (my eyes and hair are brown because of my internal supply of the pigment melanin), it's an inefficient means for artificially coloring something. You can paint something blue, but over the long haul—and sometimes much sooner—the color will be worn away.

Increasingly, humans are realizing that we may get more bang for our buck by imitating nature than by reinventing the wheel (i.e., proverbially, since the wheel is something nature didn't innovate). It's called biomimicry (or sometimes biomimetics), a word that entered the scientific lexicon in the 1960s. Even if the term is new to you, at least one example of the technology isn't: Velcro. This now-commonplace product was the brainstorm of George de Mestral, an electrical engineer who wondered how those prickly round little seed casings (burs) were so annoying effective at sticking to his clothes and his dog's fur whenever he walked through the woods. From microscopic examination he learned that nature's secret was little hooks that caught on anything with little loops.

You've used Velcro, so you know how effective a biomimetic strategy can be. A less familiar example that makes the point with striking visual clarity is the Morpho butterfly. The gorgeous blue iridescence of the Morpho's wings is the result of nanoscale structures of varying sizes that cause the light waves hitting their surface to diffract and interfere with each other so that blue is the color that is thrown off. (Remember that all color is a product of the emission or reflection of light, with no color inherent to an object.)

The benefits of coloring an object in this fashion are fairly straightforward. Because such color is produced by the structure of the object, rather than by something thrown on top of it, the color is both more permanent and does not require the production of an additional substance, thus eliminating waste products that make their way into the environment as the surface coating wears away, as well as obviating the carbon footprint of the production of the additional coating.

A more impactful potential use of biomimicry relates to concrete. According to Janine Benyus, president of the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, currently the manufacture of concrete—the most-used building material on Earth—is responsible for between 5% and 8% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But a CO2 mitigation company called Blue Planet is taking a page out of nature's recipe book for the creation of coral and capturing CO2 from flue-gas stacks (those big factory chimneys that have been significant contributors to global warming) and combining it with seawater to precipitate the materials to make concrete. It's a concrete-manufacturing process that not only doesn't generate CO2, but it actually prevents CO2 generated from other industrial processes from escaping into the atmosphere.

Nature also provides us with models for maximizing efficiency. A compelling example Benyus points to is a blueprint for the creations of wind farms. The traditional model is to erect very tall horizontal-axis wind turbines spaced out evenly across vast swaths of land, the logic being related to the fact that wind strength over a general area is not distributed evenly at any given moment. But students at the California Institute of Technology (more commonly known as Caltech) got thinking about schools of fish. Because the sinuous movement of each fish leaves small vortices in its wake, a fish directly behind will naturally curl around each vortex so as to harness the available energy to get moved forward with less energy expenditure. So the students decided to find out what would happen if they created a small wind farm full of short, vertical-axis turbines clumped close together and designed to generate little vortices of their own. The result was 10 times more wind power per turbine than is generated by the traditional model—not to mention that grouping them close together means less land use.

Biomimicry has always been available as a model for human industry, showing us how do get things done not only often with greater efficiency than any tactic we have developed on our own, but always in ways that have proven long-term track records of sustainability. Increasingly we are starting to be able to translate these models into our own technological language. It seems sure that the more rapidly and widely we make and apply these translations, the better off we—and the planet—will be. After all, we're talking about nature's way(s).

For an excellent half-hour primer by LinkTV on biomimicry and ways in which it's being applied today, go here.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information:

Image by: Bruno de Giusti

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