Biomimicry revolution: the need for natural design

A prerequisite for a more sustainable economy is that we produce things using less energy and fewer raw materials. Nature is the best teacher of this new design approach. A biomimicry revolution is on the horizon.

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona looks like a termite mound from the outside. Inside the cathedral it is as if you have entered a beautiful forest. This is no coincidence. Architect Antoni Gaudí was inspired by the geometry of nature. Needing a strong structure using as little material as possible, he looked at the plant world. The study of an oleander resulted in the design of a double twisted column. The Spanish architect thought that you had to go back to the origin to be original: "The form and power of nature are the inspiration for all knowledge."

Law of nature

Gaudí was far ahead of his time, and little imitated for decades. Yet he is certainly not the only one to apply biomimicry - or design inspired by nature. The inventors of the airplane, the Wright brothers, were inspired by birds. The Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, got the idea of Velcro from a plant. Qualcomm made a screen inspired by butterfly wings. And Airbus commissioned an aircraft partition wall based on the design of slime moulds and bones (see box below).

Despite these examples. nature is often overlooked as a source of inspiration. After the industrial revolution many designers seemed to ignore the 'natural law' of conservation of materials and energy. We prefer angular shapes and we make extremely heavy products, which consume large amounts of energy. Compare, for instance, a commercial aircraft with a fly. As we approach the limits of the earth's capacity, we need to focus more on efficient energy utilisation. Nature’s solutions offer plenty of inspiration, our immediate environment is a storehouse of almost four billion years of research and development of sustainable solutions.

Australian entrepreneur and author of The Shark's Paintbrush, Jay Harman, promotes nature as a treasure chest of innovation. He believes that we are on the eve of a biomimicry revolution, which will prompt the redesign of almost every product. "If we want a more sustainable world, we must make more use of nature as our blueprint. Biomimicry enables us to make leaps and bounds in innovation. For example, we can learn how to use less energy to move around. On average, nature uses 75% less energy than we do."

The vortex in the bathwater

Harman has made biomimicry his life's work. When he was young, while diving, he saw how draining water always takes the form of a vortex. He became fascinated by the spirals in whirlpools, tornadoes, DNA and shells. According to Harman, it is no coincidence that this form is ubiquitous. "Spirals are the path of least resistance for liquids and gases. Nature always opts for as little friction as possible."

Harman decided to take this discovery seriously and 'froze' a vortex in his bath (in the tradition of Archimedes) to create a static, 3D model. Using this prototype, which resembles a lily, he then developed energy-efficient impellers and propellers. This resulted in water pumps and cooling fans, for example for computers that were up to 50% more economical. Harman is absolutely convinced that we can solve major issues such as energy transition, chemical pollution and traffic congestion relatively quickly, with the aid of biomimicry.

Redesigning products using biomimicry requires us to dare to think differently. Take, for example, air conditioning in buildings. Demand for this is rising rapidly in emerging economies, which are often warm. Conventional air conditioning techniques are power hunger and use ozone. Harman is working with US universities to achieve more energy-efficient and cleaner cooling. This patented technology is based on the tornado, which he calls 'nature's fridge'.

Termite air conditioning

Not only tornadoes, but also termites can teach us how about eco-friendly air conditioning. The interior temperatures of termite mounds in Africa are carefully controlled with warm air discharged via a central chimney. The resulting draft moves cooler air from below into the 'rooms' inhabited by the termites. In addition, vents are used for cooling and heating. This enables a constant temperature within the mound of 30 degrees Celsius, despite fluctuations in the outside temperature of between 1 and 40 degrees Celsius. This is of vital importance to the termites, as the fungus they eat will only grow at this, constant temperature. The termites' air conditioning solution inspired the design of the Eastgate Shopping Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. enabling to cut energy costs by 90%.

Biomimicry can also help us make renewable energy sources more efficient. Wind turbines are currently placed far from each other, to avoid the negative effects of turbulence. While the turbines could actually benefit from this turbulence, as demonstrated by an experimental, vertical wind farm in Southern California. The design is inspired by how fish travel in schools. Using turbulence, fish hardly have to make any effort when swimming in a school. Vertical wind turbines can also benefit from each other's movements: they are expected to yield ten times more energy that traditional turbines.

Explosion of awareness

The promise of biomimicry is increasingly embraced according to Harman: "Universities are establishing chairs in the discipline. The number of patents and applications is growing rapidly." He has also experienced this explosion of interest as an entrepreneur. He is now harvesting the benefits of years of hard work spent trying to convince financiers and producers. A good example of this is a small, vortex-inducing impeller, which he developed for water quality improvement now used in 2,500 huge US municipal water-storage tanks where it reduces chemical consumption by 85%. Harman has sold Pax Water Technologies, the company that developed this technology, to UGSI Solutions.

The Australian entrepreneur expects biomimicry to accelerate. "We have supercomputers, nanotechnology, electron microscopes and 3D printers. These tools allow us to see the designs of nature,” he says. Moreover we can reproduce the 'products' of nature far more easily than in the past: new technology can act as a catalyst for biomimicry. If Gaudí was still alive, he would no doubt agree. The construction of his Sagrada Familia also gained momentum thanks to 3D techniques.

Biomimicry in business

Velcro zipper

The Swiss company Velcrois a company that owes its existence to biomimicry. It had its origins in a discovery by George de Mestral, an engineer. He loved walking, and often found plant seeds sticking to his clothes and in his dog's coat. One day he decided to look at them under a microscope. He discovered how these plant seeds adhere to other materials in order to spread. De Mestral translated this into a simple system for zipping and unzipping material, which we now know as Velcro. At first it was difficult to convince people of the benefits of the product. Velcro was seen as unattractive. This changed when NASA started using it in space suits.

Butterfly screen

The US processor manufacturer Qualcomm was inspired by butterflies when designing the Mirasol computer screen. Butterfly wings, like peacock wings, can exhibit fantastic colours. This is due to their structure, which breaks up light like a prism. The technology copied from butterflies was called Qualcomm interferometric modulation (IMOD). The screens use ambient light, so they are economical - and viewable in sunlight. Nevertheless, Qualcomm has since sold its IMOD pilot plant in Taiwan to Apple, which is rumoured to be developing MicroLED displays for use in the Apple Watch.

Bionic wall

Together with software developer Autodesk, Airbus has developed a strong but lightweight aircraft partition wall. The designers were inspired by nature during the design process. First of all, they used an algorithm based on the way in which slime moulds 'grow'. Besides, they mimicked bone structure, which has more material in the areas bearing the biggest loads. Thanks to 3D printers, the relatively complex structure can be produced in large quantities. The partition weighs 45% less than comparable walls made in the traditional way. This type of design makes aircrafts much more economical to operate. 

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